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Beck Lloyd, centre, as Marta Di Spelta, steps into an Egyptian sarcophagus during a scene in Grand Magic at the Stratford Festival.David Hou/Stratford Festival

  • Title: Grand Magic
  • Written by: Eduardo De Filippo
  • In a new version by: John Murrell and Donato Santeramo
  • Director: Antoni Cimolino
  • Actors: Gordon S. Miller, Geraint Wyn Davies
  • Company: Stratford Festival
  • Venue: Tom Patterson Theatre
  • City: Stratford, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Sept. 29, 2023

Over the course of his long career at the Stratford Festival, director Antoni Cimolino has occasionally taken a break from main man Shakespeare to make the case that the Italian playwright Eduardo De Filippo (1900-1984) deserves a place in the canon of 20th-century European playwrights.

All The Globe’s reviews from the 2023 Stratford Festival and Shaw Festival so far

Presto-magnifico! With his third De Filippo, a convincing production of Grand Magic (La grande magia) centred on a stunner of a performance by Gordon S. Miller, Cimolino has pulled off the trick. He’s clinched the case that this 1948 play, at the very least, deserves to be as well-known in the English-language theatre as the works of De Filippo’s fellow Italian Luigi Pirandello and the Romanian-French playwright Eugène Ionesco.

Grand Magic, a hard-to-pigeonhole play that slowly creeps in the direction of the theatre of the absurd, begins in a setting ripe for farce: a seaside resort.

There, a large group of small characters (that only a well-resourced repertory theatre company such as Stratford could bring to life to full effect) are gossiping about two men in between games of cards and glasses of Campari.

The first is a magician named Otto Marvuglia (Geraint Wyn Davies), who is set to arrive at the resort soon, and whose routines are said to be anything but; several guests who have witnessed his performances before attest that his tricks are truly, frighteningly transformative.

The second is an extremely jealous husband named Calogero Di Spelta (Miller), who is said to lock his beautiful wife, Marta (Beck Lloyd), up in their room away from other men even when he uses the bathroom.

When Calogero makes his appearance on stage, he is precisely as dyspeptic and controlling as he’s been described; shortly after, Otto arrives as well, cutting slightly less grand a figure than imagined, but talking a good game about his ability to use his “third eye” to see the unseeable and create long-lasting illusions.

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Qianna MacGilchrist as Signorina Zampa in Grand Magic.David Hou/Stratford Festival

As the patio clears so the prestidigitator can prepare, we meet his gang of assistants – including his combative wife, Zaira (Sarah Orenstein) – and discover some were secretly priming the pump on the resort patio.

And so, the themes of the play have been neatly set up: The importance of trust (in a romantic relationship) and the importance of skepticism (in everything else). Or have I got those parentheses right?

At that evening’s magic show, everything comes together as Otto enlists Marta as an audience volunteer for a disappearing act against the protestations of Calogero. The wife steps into an Egyptian sarcophagus and then, a few acts later, is returned to her husband in an unexpected way that I don’t want to spoil.

There’s a rational explanation for what is going on here – but Otto’s “game,” as he describes it, also opens up the play to other dimensions and sends the play in directions that eventually invite comparisons to Pirandello and Ionesco (as well as to the cult David Fincher film The Game).

Calogero is very much like the great “gulls” you find in Shakespeare such as Malvolio or Parolles, men with huge character flaws who become the butt of elaborate jokes. But his deluded character slowly becomes the primary one here – De Filippo following him through comedy to tragedy for two more acts as he struggles with the paradox of how to hold onto his love for his wife while relinquishing his illusions about her. Miller depicts all this magnificently.

Grand Magic’s sudden shifts in tone, which are disarming but entertaining, include a turn toward Dario Fo-style political satire when a policeman, played with panache by Emilio Vieira, appears to chew the scenery for a bit; a sudden charge into Anton Chekhov territory following an unexpected death; and, in the final act, the appearance of a comic servant straight of out commedia dell’arte (or Carlo Goldini). These are handled well by the actors (though not always entirely so by designer Lorenzo Savoini).

The script used in Stratford is, in different places in the program, referred to as “a new version” by John Murrell and Donato Santeramo, or a “world première translation.” Murrell and Santeramo are also called “co-adapters” somewhere else.

So, with no knowledge of Italian myself, I don’t really have a clue how much liberty Murrell, a major Canadian playwright who passed away in 2019, and Santeramo, a language professor from Queen’s University, have taken with De Filippo’s original work. But, despite a few passages that feel stuck between languages, whatever they’ve done to transform Grand Magic has been successful.

The only thing keeping Cimolino’s production from completely soaring is a performance by Wyn Davies that felt unfinished on opening night; the long-time company star struggled to conjure a compelling journey for his character, and at times seemed uncomfortable with his metaphysical spiels. In short, he just didn’t cast a spell – but, fortunately, Miller more than made up for that.

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