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A CurtainUp Review
The Magic Fire
by Kathryn Osenlund

Left-Right foreground: Martin Rayner, Janis Dardaris, Susan Wilder. Robin Moseley looks on.
The Magic Fire by Lillian Groag, which won the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays Award in 1977, has just premiered at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. Ably directed by Co-artistic director Blanka Zizka, it's a memory play set in Argentina in the early 50s and told through the reminiscences of Lise Berg, well played by Robin Moseley. Lise's family left occupied Austria in the late 30s (Her great grandparents had left Italy about 50 years prior.) In their minds they remain displaced persons as they listen to their beloved operas and air ritual family grievances while outside their French doors and Eva Peron-style balcony, Argentina deteriorates into a police state. They have exchanged one repressive regime for another.

The roles are an actor's dream and all the acting is first-rate across the board. There's a large cast of characters including a difficult matriarch (Kaye Kingston), a crazy aunt (Angela Pietropinto), and an out of political favor actress (Janis Dardaris), and that's only the beginning. Martin Rayner plays Lise's father, Otto Berg, in an understated way that works well against the bravura of the Italian half of the family. Though not a man of action, Otto dreams of heroism while listening to Wagner, and passes along his love of music and heroes to his daughter. Samantha Wischnia plays the huge role of Lise as a young girl with great enthusiasm and bratty zest. Robin Moseley deliberately downplays the role of the older and wiser Lise, who is the narrator and organizing sensibility of the play. Lise's mother, charmingly played by Susan Wilder, is a beautiful sophisticate who, though she lived in Austria under Nazi repression, incredibly still wants to believe that everything will be OK if you keep your head down.

Things are definitely not OK in Argentina. Eva Peron lies dying and police sirens disturb the city night as the military tightens the screws. Family friend Alberto Barcos (James Gale), a newspaper editor whose paper has been shut down, confronts Henri Fontanes (Dan Kern). Fontanes, the friendly and protective neighbor and "uncle" to Lise, slowly emerges as the enemy-- he's a general in Peron's army. Through the conflict of these two characters the playwright tries to cram the big picture into too small a space. The play works better when the characters are conceived as persons rather than as embodiments of political positions.

The Magic Fire operates in a number of paradoxical ways. First, although a play is a spoken thing, this one moves like music, almost as if it were scored. Second, on content level, again and again Lise says, "It wasn't like this,""because characters interact differently from the way she's remembered. For their part, family members complain that she's going to make them do things they never did and say things they never said. So the memories prove unsatisfactory for all for different reasons. An underlying minor theme is that nostalgia lies, yet the play is nostalgic. "It stinks of nostalgia in here," says an aunt. (Slight whiff of Tennessee Williams?) Third, the structure, while complete as a drawing room drama, moves outside the frame in various ways. For example, Lise's disaffected Italian great grandmother (Kaye Kingston), says to her, "You think you're gonna turn us into theatre, we go away. We never go away." At one point the house lights come up and the great grandmother moves stage front to instruct the audience to go home. Fourth, the main character/narrator is integrated into the play in a paradoxical way as well. In a manner more akin to dreaming than remembering, Lise participates in the past, interacting with the others, and in the process realizes things she didn't understand when she was little.

The second act takes place on Lise's birthday, which is also Walpurgis Nacht. It is a family dinner at which rambunctious Italians and less demonstrative Viennese tell funny stories, discuss and dispute opera in an entertaining manner, and occasionally break into operatic aria. We learn of the housekeeper's (Jo Twiss) brother Santo, a political dissident who is never shown. Santo provides a potential catalyst for the father, Otto, who longs for heroism while for the sake of his family's safety needs to remain apolitical. Otto sees the problems coming, but is helpless and vulnerable in the face of Argentina's advancing disaster. In the final analysis, Lise comes away with idealistic memories bruised, for she's become aware that her family's life in Argentina was neither as safe nor as happy as she'd thought it was.

This is a full-bodied drama, not minimalist or spare. The characters are flamboyant, the scenes are old fashioned and fully realized, and the scenic design is ingenious and elaborate. Late in the play immigrant memory is expressed as suitcases, suspended and dreamlike, seen down a long passageway. At play's end, also as in a dream, it drifts off.

The Wilma can be counted on to present energetic and mind-engaging productions. It's a thinking person's theater, and this piece fits into their philosophy. It is three hours of delicious theate -- well mounted, well acted, and engaging. Overheard after the show, "That was a very fast three hours!" Agreed.

The Magic Fire
Playwright, Lillian Groag
Directed by Blanka Zizka
Cast: Charles Antalosky, Janis Dardaris, James Gale, Dan Kern, Kaye Kingston, Mikel Sarah Lambert, Robin Moseley, Angela Pietropinto, Martin Rayner, Jo Twiss, Susan Wilder, Samantha Wischnia
Scenic Design: David P. Gordon
Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa
Costume Design: Janus Stefanowicz Running time 3 hrs with 2 intermissions 12/0402-01/05/03; opening 12/11/02

Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 12/11 performance
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