Monday, February 07, 2011

Review: Magus

Carey Harrison's play Magus offers a melange of people and times, jumping back and forth between the early twentieth century and the late sixteenth. Kafka, Shakespeare and Cervantes all meet in a vision conjured by the madness of Kafka's sister Ottla, overseen by the multi-skilled consultant to Queen Elizabeth, John Dee, who invites the audience into the vision. Dee's quest for life eternal seems to have been answered as he speaks to the audience in the present time before stepping back to the sixteenth century, then moving forward to appear as Sigmund Freud for Kafka. I love the idea of Dee having lived on and taken up new personas like Freud, but Harrison didn't really develop that angle and I think it's a missed opportunity. Harrison's magus is kindly and warm-hearted but yearning for that eternal life -- seemingly only for himself, though. His wife is barely in his thoughts (or the play, a shame for the lovely Naomi Hard), though there is an allusion to the wife-swapping alleged between Dee and his partner Edward Kelley (played with nervous malevolence by Phillip Levine). Kelley's only interest is gold and he has a bottomless and urgent hunger for it that makes him willing to countenance tricking his partner and plotting the murder of that troublesome young Shakespeare.

The invention of this meeting between Shakespeare (Rudi Azank) and Cervantes (Richard Bennett) had all kinds of potential for explosion, but nothing much happened with it. You set the bar high when you include historical figures of such talent. Surely even as a callow youth Shakespeare had wit and insight, but in the play he's just a kind of laddish troublemaker, though Azank made sure he was charming. Bennett had even less to do with Cervantes.

George Konrad's Kafka centered around a heartfelt sorrow for his sister's madness. Although Ottla's vision formed the play, her role was peripheral. Nonetheless Brittany Sokolowski managed to infuse a fragile quality to her performance that made her brother's obsessive worry understandable. But again, Kafka wasn't especially Kafka-like despite his transformation scene. The sudden injection of realism through Ottla's trip to the deathcamp Auschwitz gave me the feeling that everything including the kitchen sink was being thrown in.

I don't want to sound too negative: after all I'd take a play with ambitions that don't quite work over a less ambitious play any day of the week. Harrison himself offered a warm and engaging Dee. The care that went into the production was obvious. The costuming was quite good and the sets simple but effective (loved the satyr!). David Temple's beautiful classical guitar music offered both dramatic ambiance and reverie.   

This was my first visit to the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck; it's a interesting space and I'm glad they're willing to branch out from the usual repertory staples to do an unusual and ambitious project like this play. Well done!

14 comments:

Todd Mason said...

I strain to remember what James Blish and Avram Davidson specifically did with John Dee...certainly a major figure on the fringes of Western culture.

K. A. Laity said...

I always visit his scrying mirror and crystal ball in the British Museum. He had a huge influence on Elizabeth, but he's been kind of dismissed by popular culture as nothing more than a charlatan. Pity.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Oh, I came expecting a film of the John Fowles book and this is quite different indeed,

K. A. Laity said...

LOL -- not quite the thing, eh? I left a note for Todd mentioning the other one. I'm always behind.

george said...

I think that what so many reviewers miss is the fact that hiese characters were not meant to be portrayed with complete realism-the play is a fantasia. As far as being Kafka-like, what exactly does that mean--have you spoken to him recently to know how he actually was? he was portrayed the way he was written in the scrip0--which generally is the only information an actor needs.

george said...

Sorry--meant to say "these characters" I really nust learn to proofread.

K. A. Laity said...

Well, I can't argue with actors playing the role that has been written. However, Id' think there's little point in naming a character Shakespeare if you're not going to take advantage of him being Shakespeare (or Cervantes or Kafka). I should emphasize that I didn't dislike the play: I just wanted more. Perhaps because I would have made different choices. Nonetheless, an interesting and ambitious play.

george said...

I see your point. What I really enjoyed about the characters portrayed here was that we were getting a wonderful picture of what they could have been like like before they were Cervantes or Shakespeare or Kafka as we know them--wouldn't it be wonderful to sit in a tavern with Shakespeare before he had written a single line--I often think that way about so many figures that I revere (I would have loved to have known FDR before he was "FDR" for example)-I guess that was the point I was making(fumblingly I admit).

K. A. Laity said...

I think that's one of the aspects that made it fascinating: seeing the budding star before they really began to shine. I just think we should have glimpsed more of the sparkle -- when I think of actors who later went on to fame (such as seeing Alfred Molina in 1980 in A Short Sharp Shock for example, which I remember well) there's enough of the brightness to make you check the program for their name and remember them later. I wanted more of that.

clairehl said...

Dear K.A, allowing for my personal prejudices as a member of The Woodstock Players I'd like to weigh in in defense of Cary Harrison's choices. If the primary focus of the play had been the young William Shakespeare one could not argue with your comments, but, given this play, to have given that character even more focus would have unbalanced the story, made the play too long, or a different play. Your point about including major figures is a good one but, imo, the script did pay great homage to WS in particular through parody clever enough to fool many audience members into thinking that a lot more lines were WS's than was the case, and the play contained many ideas that appear in WS's oeuvre as if to suggest that this may be where he picked them up, for example: the play within the play, the Comedy of Errors vis-a-vis the two Williams, and of course The Tempest; the character of Prospero is believed to be based on John Dee as you probably know. It is just fun to think Quixote might have been too. As far as Rudi Azank's performance – I thought it was sparky and showed real promise, and he is still a great deal younger than Alfred Molina was in 1980. As George pointed out, the piece is a fantasia, a dream, or maybe an escape into madness in the mind of a woman faced with the unthinkable. I like that you saw the play primarily as Ottla's story, not Dee's or even Kafka's as Dee suggests with his “book of Kafka's dream” – I too think of it as Ottla's story and that makes particular sense of the ending which was, in fact, Ottilie Kafka's in real life and as written in the play. It is what pulls the main threads together as any ending should, so, far from being a gratuitous or dispensable ingredient, it is the heart of the play. Also, this was foreshadowed earlier in the play: the Duchy of Auschwitz was indeed among the territories of the Holy Roman Empire. One fun fact: it is documented that John Dee and Edward Kelly visited Rudolf II's court in Prague.

Thank you for coming to the play and writing about it; perhaps we'll see you in June at Byrdcliffe in Woodstock for the next production of The Woodstock Players: “Midget In A Catsuit Reciting Spinoza.” Also thrilled that you liked my satyr ;)

K. A. Laity said...

Well, I hope I don't have to defend my review to all of the cast and crew! I won't have enough time to write new ones (or wait, is that the plan? ;-)

Dee and Kelley traveled around quite a bit: theirs is a fascinating history.

I look forward to future productions from the Players. Clearly you have an interest in productions that aren't the same old standards and for that I salute you.

rudy2@arcimboldo.net said...

I think the young Shakespeare portrayed in the play is quite witty. He is dexterous verbally, inventive (coming up with a plot to bed Jane Dee worthy of one of his future comedies)and very insightful. He is, naturally, callow at this point in his life. Cervantes is still all soldier. I found Magus to be a very complex play, well worth the second viewing after seeing it in June. I found it excellent then and many layers were revealed the second time I saw it.

Kipper said...

I think there's a decided lack of reportage about feline characters, or the absence thereof, in the production, and I blame all concerned for this, and your whole species. Also, more kibble. Now. Thanks very much for your attention.

clairehl said...

Thanks K.A., and also Rudi2, for the encouragement - our main interest is in new plays and that is always going to be a risk especially as we don't have the luxury of long rehearsal periods or runs to iron out all, or most, of the kinks. But I promise not to weigh in on your next review of a W.P. production, haha, if there is one - a review I mean! So on you go to your next project and I look forward to reading about it.

Kipper - the next W.P. production is for you.