Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Magic Fire

THE MAGIC FIRE’ burns out at Ensemble

‘THE MAGIC FIRE,’ which is now in production at Ensemble Theatre, is a semi-autobiographical saga by actress and playwright Lillian Garrett-Groag. It centers on the life of her immigrant relatives (both the Italian and the assimilated Jews from Austria) who have moved to Argentina to escape the Nazi onslaught in Europe. The play itself takes place in Buenos Aires in June and July of 1952, during the reign of Juan and Eva Peron.

The family had perceived Argentina as a land of hope, freedom and unbridled entrepreneurship. Unfortunately, the rise of Peron, much like the rise to power of Hitler and Mussolini, destroyed that illusion.

The family tries to insulate itself from reality by turning to the arts. They discuss opera, classical music and drama. They listen constantly to the waltzes of Johann Strauss and soaring arias of Giuseppe Verdi. In spite of blocking out the sounds and sights around them, reality eventually hits home.

Beyond the family’s protective cocoon, Eva Perón, referred to by family members as “that woman,” lies dying, and police sirens disrupt the night and innocents are dragged away, never to be heard from again. The family is spared because of the protection of their neighbor, General Fortannes, who is a high-ranking member of the Peron regime.

The play, which examines family ties and the effect of politics on the individual, asks whether art and culture are necessarily opposed to political struggle? Eventually, we see that “art separated from life withers and dies, or enters the sterile service of the elite.”

The script is overlong and riddled with clichés and abstract musical illusions. Only in a fast-paced and well-envisioned creation will the audience be captivated. Unfortunately, the Ensemble production is plodding and poorly conceived by director Licia Colombi. It is almost painful to watch the quality actors in the cast struggle to keep their heads above water due to poor blocking, lack of clear character development and misplaced accents which come and go or are never there. No one seems to completely understand what’s going on. There’s a lot of emoting, with little underlying meaning coming through.

All is not lost. Lee Mackey, one of the dowager empresses of Cleveland theatre, is delightful as the old Italian grandmother who insists that she was kidnapped by her husband (spit, spit) and brought to this country where “even the cows are too big.” She keys many of the play’s laughs.

Tween-aged Sarah DeGirolamo, gives the right tone to Young Lise, whose acid tongue and incessant questions (e.g., “What’s a foreskin?”) is a perfect metaphor for youthful naïveté. (She alternates with Camille Rekhson in the role.)

Annie Kitral, as the frustrated old maid Paula, has some wonderful moments.

The rest of the cast tries hard, but never quite hits the right pace or allows the audience to feel the feelings of the people they are portraying.

Capsule judgement: ‘THE MAGIC FIRE’ is not an easy sit. Between the talkiness of the script and the lack of concept by the director, there is little to grab and hold attention. The magic is missing. The fire doesn’t burn.