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!