Online since August 2002

'The Magic Fire' still holds truths

Published November 2007

By Carol Davis


The Magic Fire
By Lillian Groag
Directed by Kathy Brombacher

Moonlight Theatre at the Avo
303 Main St.
Through Nov. 18

Moonlight Theatre's artistic director Kathy Brombacher has selected Lillian Groag's "The Magic Fire" to open 2007-'08 winter season. The art deco Avo Theatre in Vista is home to Moonlight Theatre's winter, indoor season. This cozy converted movie theater is a perfect venue for this type of production. Surrounded by a bevy of small businesses, at least a dozen or more restaurants and ample parking, a trip north should be on your calendar.

With anti-Semitism on the rise in this country and water boarding the controversial torture of choice for our government (or so it seems with no denials in either direction), it seems an appropriate play to kick off the season. Groag's play is a memory play set in Buenos Aires in 1957. The government of Juan Perón is in power, their beloved Evita is on her death bead and the country is in a political turmoil.

Argentinean-born American playwright Groag's play was first staged in 1997. Groag, an associate artist at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, had her play produced there in 1999 to critical acclaim. (It was also presented here at the now-defunct Streisand Festival of New Jewish Plays.) Times change and world scenes take on different hues, but yours truly can never divorce herself from the forces and voices of anti-Semitism whether they happen in Germany, Poland or this country. Some plays transcend centuries. You will have to be the judge to determine whether "The Magic Fire" is one of them.

Groag's semi-autobiographical play is about her memories of growing up in a family whose members are not only emigrants from Nazi-occupied Austria and Mussolini's Italy, but they are also an unassimilated group whose culture is Old World and whose music and love for the arts is the antithesis of the political upheaval in which they live. Buenos Aires is the place they felt had the same Old World, European characteristics they were used to. On the Austrian branch of the family sits Otto Berg (Jeff Anthony Miller), whose love of music insulates his daughter from the rages of terror going on outside their window. His Aunt Clara (Li-Anne Roswell), a Jew by choice and who lived in Paris, is among those who fled as well.

The irony of Berg is that his favorite composer is the anti-Semitic Richard Wagner. In fact, the title of the play comes from his second opera of his Ring Cycle, "Die Walküre. In it, Wotan punishes his Valkyrie daughter, Brünhilde. While she sleeps, she is surrounded by a wall of fire that protects her. The sleep, imposed by Wotan as punishment, can only be penetrated by the hero who is never afraid. In a moment while listening to that passage, an impressive fire rages outside the Bergs' window. Marty Burnett designed the period drawing room set and Paul A. Canaletti is responsible for the appropriate lighting, with Chris Luessmann providing sounds and projections.

The Ring of FireThe Ring of Fire
On the Italian Catholic side of the family are the Guarneri's – Nonna (Trina Kaplan), the 98-year-old anti-fascist matriarch who fled to South America with her husband in 1890. Her daughter Paula (Dagmar Krause Fields) is a frustrated dancer, and Nonna's son Juan (Paul Bourque), whose daughters are Amalia (Terri Park), Lise's mother, and Elena (Marci Ann Wuebben), a beautiful and talented stage actress who cannot work because she refuses to join Perón's political party. They make up the total clan that are assembled in the Bergs' living room and whose activities are the essence of Lise's memory in one moment in time. Another irony not lost on the audience is the fact that the Guarneri clique loves the music of Verdi, Puccini and the recently heralded Maria Callas.

And then there are the others, outside their circle, as Tevya says in "Fiddler": the Berg's neighbor, Henri Fontannes (Jesse Mackinnon) one of Perón's henchmen and generals who charms little Lise and provides the families the opportunities to indulge in their artistic loves. Dressed to the nines (Roslyn Lehman designed the period costumes) and pretty much of a villain, his character does a one hundred and eighty degree turn as the family learns more about his involvement with Perón and in rounding up dissenters.

Thomas Hall is Alberto Barcos. A dear friend of the family and oft-time date to Elena, he runs the opposition newspaper. Always in the know, he is the first to inform the Bergs that their housekeeper's (Rhona Gold is Rosa Arrua) brother has gone missing. And therein lies the crux of the Berg-Guarneri conundrum. Although totally insulated from the outside world by their music and highbrow love of the arts, people are still disappearing around them and they now know one of them. Should they come face to face with what's happening, should they try to save Rosa's brother, an illegal laborer, or should they continue to hide in their music and art and pretend another dictatorship won't put them in harm's way again.

Rebecca Lauren Myers is the younger Lise and Sandra Ellis Troy is the storyteller/alter ego who gives commentary to events as they unfolded before they had to leave the country. The story is told in flashbacks as a now older and wiser Lise seems to have her facts a little skewed, but at the same time we see that the younger Lise wasn't around or was sleeping when controversial decisions were being made and has no real recollection of them having taken place. Her memories were of a family who loved music, and every gathering, though raucous, was filled with love, patience and wisdom, especially by Otto, her loving father. Groag skillfully hides the dangers of the political climate by camouflaging them under a blanket called the arts.

From a realistic perspective, Berg was the only one, dreamer that he was, who saw the handwriting on the wall or actually acknowledged it. Particularly chilling was his statement, "The trains always run on time." After all, he was a product of Nazi-occupied Austria, and while he was an assimilated Jew, he knew the tone was about to change and not in his favor. What the older Lise found was that there are many sides to the same series of events and life is just not as simple as a Viennese waltz or a hero rescuing a girl from a fire.

With opening weekend performances coming on the heels of the now contained fires in San Diego (another irony), there were still some kinks to iron out on the night I saw the production. Overall, the cast was surprisingly cohesive, save for Miller's Otto who was not only tentative, stiff and dropping lines, his accent was in and out all evening. Young Myers, who was so wonderful in "Fireflies" earlier this year, was too whiny and shrill. Once her voice is modulated and she settles down, she will be terrific. Kaplan's Nonna is absolutely marvelous! She is funny, convincing, full of vigor and still fighting the fascists in her mind. It's a role made for her and she fills it to perfection.

Terri Parks' Amalia fits the bill of the concerned mother and the charming wife while Dagmar's Paula is a hoot as the frustrated dancer. Gould is the Berg's housekeeper/babysitter. Gould, an actress of long standing in the San Diego community, is always on target and as Rosa she stirs the pot with the news that her brother is hiding out in the Berg home. Hall's Alberto is dead-on as the concerned friend. In some ways, he is also their conscience. Hall has a commanding presence and when he is on stage, all eyes wait for his pronouncements. He can't understand why the Berg's don't find the general as repugnant as he knows him to be. For his part, Mackinnon's character, Henri, is pretty loathsome. While pretending to be their friend, he uses them to convince himself he's not as bad the others. Mackinnon, however, didn't seem all that comfortable in this role.

Troy, always a bigger-than-life actor, makes her presence known in many ways, even though she is more of a bystander than an actual participant. She is either off to the side looking on as well as putting herself into the play. She has that wonderful ability and twinkle in her eye to let us know when she is serious and when she is playing with us. Surely, she knows something is amiss and she's a bit thrown by it all.

On the whole, director Brombacher, with the help of choreographer Carlos Mendoza, is able to take three generations of somewhat like-minded family members, but with diverse personalities, through a series of tangos, waltzes, operas, symphonies and political upheaval to convince Lise that life was not as she had remembered. And really, is it ever?

"The Magic Fire" is charming in it's Old World lure, frightening in the undercurrent of the times then and now, and particularly timely, lest we forget.

It is definitely worth seeing.

See you at the theater.

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