Maybe I just didn't get it. Eduardo de Fillipo is hardly a household name in America, although he was certainly celebrated in Europe, primarily as an actor and director, but also as a playwright. A contemporary of Pirandello, "Grand Magic" is one of Fillipo's lesser-known works. It combines a sophisticated theatrical technique with ironic storytelling and complex, urbane characters. Beyond that, it's the sort of play specifically written for the actor's craft, and reveling in the joy of performance. The director, Mladen Kiselov, is internationally known and had great success at ACT in 1999 with "Side Man". The physical production was daringly imagined and confidently accomplished. The cast, all solid professionals, was led by an inspired performance by John Procaccino.
It was a first-rate mounting of a rarely produced play by an unfamiliar international playwright. That should have been the sort of thing to increase my heart rate just walking into the theatre. So why, through most of the evening, was I sitting there mildly intrigued and only marginally amused? Others around me seemed much more engaged. They were on their feet at the end of the play, while I was barely sitting upright. "Grand Magic" was, for me, neither grand nor magic.
Part of the problem may have been the sheer mass of the work. Comedy which runs close to three hours tends to overstay its welcome. Then again, this wasn't just comedy, but high-art comedy. The first act was set on a Mediterranean beach, the second in a tenement dominated by a gigantic, crude stairway, and the third on a kind of absurdist Neverland with hanging and buried cultural icons, platforms and ramps, all buried in Salvador Dali sand. With themes of the real and imagined, its blatant theatricality and its rich mixture of high-art concepts with classical comedy, this play clearly intends to aim high. For me, though, the manifestly continental style seemed mostly, well, foreign. Granted, one of the themes had to do with the nature of artifice, both in social and personal terms, but for me it just seemed contrived. In the same way, I was always more interested in the characters as ideas than as individuals, as actual persons. When there was genuinely funny comedy going on (no surprise given the level of the talent), it didn't really feel like it was organic to the story, or to the explication of character.
The one element that did fully engage me was the marvelous performance of John Procaccino, as Calogaro Di Spelta. He was a kind of "little tramp" meets Rowan Atkinson by way of commedia del arte. Mr. Procaccino is vastly resourceful, and managed to win my sympathy as well as my laughter. When his wife vanishes in a magic trick (by way of a powerboat in which her lover was waiting), his foolishness in response was nearly as sad as it was absurd. Throughout the play, in a wide variety of circumstances and changing styles, this was the character in whom I remained invested. His physical comedy was precise and expert, his connection with the others was always solid and he, more than anyone else, made me feel rather than just intellectualizing, the existential pain and absurdity of life.
His was not the only talent on display, however. Ken Ruta as the mysterious old magician was suitably arcane and authentic. Both Beth Andrisevic and Marianne Owen played their roles with a fine grace and sophistication. Mari Nelson was elegant and beautiful as the faithless wife, more image than reality. David Pichette was the perfect compliment to Proccacino. A talented and versatile commedian, Mr. Pichette was marvelous as both the police inspector and as Gregorio Di Spelta.
In addition to the beautifully imagined sets by Narelle Sissons, the lighting by Chris Parry sustained the play's complex emotional palette. Costumes by Marcia Dixcy Jory ranged from elegant to ordinary, but were always stylish and effective. "Grand Magic" looked fantastic, and created a tone and manner that was always tasteful and impressive.
And so I come to the initial question once again. How did a production that does so much right end up being so unaffecting? I think there are always times when a play is simply not the right piece for any given individual. Occasionally, that individual may be a critic. Perhaps this was a much better play than I thought. Perhaps the laughter of others in the audience was far more insightful than my own tepid response. Perhaps one needed to be smarter and more learned and more attentive than I was on this particular night. Perhaps the answer to all those questions is the same as the answer that I've settled on for my response to the play itself.
Perhaps, but I really don't much care.
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