23 September 2006: Groag, The Magic Fire

Matinee. Shaw Festival. Court House Theatre. Directed by Jackie Maxwell (who is also the Artistic Director of the Shaw Festival)

A play by Lillian Groag about memory and what it contributes to the ongoing quest for one’s identity, one’s sense of self. The setting is the Berg household in Buenos Aires, 1952, where we see the common life of two intermarried families, the Bergs (from Vienna) and the Guarneris (from Italy) — immigrants in a nation of immigrants. Or, to put it another way, the setting is the mind and heart of Lise Berg, a young woman twice divorced and now living in the USA with her mother, who narrates and simultaneously really inhabits the house of her memory, even as she coexists with her seven-year-old self, Young Lise, the one visible child (there is a younger brother who does not appear), at once outside and inside the action reconstructed by her efforts at remembering what her early life was like.

A certain amount is made of the notorious unreliability of memory, Lise’s and everyone else’s; but as the play proceeds we come to believe in the veracity of what we see. And yet, what we come to understand is that the pervasive sense of warmth and friendliness, of domestic safety, was, in a radically contradictory way, simultaneously an almost tactile felt presence and an illusion. The neighbor, General Henri Fontannes, a close family friend and, it seemed, a confidant whose “best pal” was the seven-year-old Lise, turns out to have been their faithful pro­tect­or, shielding them from the chaos and brutal social and political upheaval of Argentina during the tumultuous Perón years (Eva Perón dies in the course of the play).

The simultaneity of the action, embroiling the past and present together, prod­­uces its own rich, commingled symmetry. This dynamic works beautifully throughout the play and perhaps most especially well in the nearly hour-long dinner scene, a celebration of Lise’s seventh birthday. Most meals on stage are much shorter and much less elaborate than this one, in which an entire four- or five-course dinner is served and actually eaten by eight persons, even while the most animated multivalent, sometimes explosive, sometimes muted, conversa­tion is going on and much wine, liqueurs, and other drinks are incessantly poured.

I was fully engaged and drawn into the fictional reality of this multi-gener­ational, dual-family meal, while at the same time I felt limitless admiration for the combined forces of expert, beautifully rehearsed and faultlessly well-timed acting and business and the evident backstage support necessary to make it all work. And work it did, even as the adult Lise hovered in the foreground and back­ground and as the family maid, Rosa — whose politically problematic soccer-playing brother hovers unseen in the kitchen — wearing a controlled yet troub­led expression, delivers course after course to the table. This hour is the best hour I have spent in the theatre here at the Shaw Festival, so far, and that is saying quite a lot. Our astonishment, at the end of the dinner, after one and three-quarters hours of nonstop performance, was genuine and unmixed.

(We are beginning to appreciate the peculiar delights of repertory company acting, taking some real pleasure in identifying in the play currently in perform­ance actors and actresses we have seen in recent days. It appears that almost all actors are hired to perform two roles, and so they are busy constantly. Our guess — to be verified today (I am writing this account on Sunday morning) — that the schedule of performances of the ten plays on view this season is such that, typic­ally, actors perform seven or eight times a week in two separate roles. In The Magic Fire the adult Lise Berg is Tara Roshing, who was so fine as Catherine Sloper in The Heiress; Clara Stepaneck, Otto Berg’s aunt, was Patricia Hamilton, the Mrs Elspeth in Rosmersholm; and the Rosa, Waneta Storms, who played Reb­ec­ca West in the latter play.)

The title of the play, The Magic Fire, deserves some notice. The reference is Wagnerian, to the circle of fire — my Wagnerian gaps are showing here — through which only a great hero can walk, and which meanwhile acts as pro­tection. The significance of it is partly owing to the fact that these Viennese and Italian ex-patriots are steeped in Wagner, Verdi, and Puccini, and much is made of the Wagnerian musical reference in the course of the play. But the idea of a protective circle of fire as it applies metaphorically to the situation, the plight, of the Berg and Guarneri families, who in some real sense await rescue by a hero, even as a partly failed hero, Henri, complicit in some measure, as we learn, in the disappearances and other atrocities of the Perónist regime, is also much to the point. In fact, it goes to the heart of the play.

Another point about the circle of fire: it is put in place by the father to protect a daughter — a father who then goes off and leaves her — by analogy applicable to Lise.

I have seldom seen a play in which all the forces, dramatic, theatrical, and technical, have been so superbly and seamlessly linked together as thoroughly as in this one. This was also the case in the Rosmersholm, I thought — the two high points of the visit to the Shaw Festival, so far.

And we have The Crucible and The Invisible Man yet to see, today. My kind of life.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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