Review: "The Great Magic" Casts an Entrancing Spell

The Great Magic (La grande magia)

Adapted from Eduardo De Filippo by Rosario Sparno

Directed by Rosario Sparno

Presented by Casa del Contemporaneo at Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimo’ at NYU, Manhattan, NYC on May 2, 2024 at 7 pm and Culture Lab LIC, Queens, NYC on May 4, 2024 at 7:30 pm

Photo by Luigi Maffettone
Questions of how far we can trust our senses and what the answers mean for the reality to which they seem to provide access have occupied Western philosophy for as long as it has existed. Intersections among perception, illusion, self, and ontology are central to The Great Magic (La grande magia), a 1948 play by Eduardo De Filippo (1900-1984), one of Italy's most important modern playwrights. The play provides a modern approach to the sort of deception-of-a-jealous-husband plot that has its own long tradition, and ultimately makes a kind of Schrodinger's cat of one man's trust and sense of self, if not of his reality itself. The version presented at the 2024 In Scena! Italian Theater Festival, which runs from April 29th to May 13th at multiple venues throughout the five boroughs and offers free admission to all events, is an adaptation by Rosario Sparno that reduces both the cast and the running time and is the only adaptation approved by the De Filippo family. Performed in Italian with English supertitles, the resulting production is an expert blend of funny and thought-provoking, with a dash of literal magic.

The play begins with a fashionably dressed woman (Antonella Romano), who identifies herself as a long-term guest of the hotel where the scene is set, playing solitaire before mingling and gossiping with the audience. This opening is just one of the production's inventive uses of space, which include projecting the supertitles onto a large 3D moon and the way in which the use of the actual audience as an audience within the world of the play aligns with the destabilization of the boundaries between illusion and reality. In a twist which unfortunately must be mentioned (so, spoiler!), the woman, Zaira, turns out to be both wife and assistant to Professor Marvuglia (Luca Iervolino), the illusionist whose magical ability she has talked up, including mentioning how he earlier made the wife of a certain Calogero Di Spelta (Rosario Sparno) disappear. The pair, who once played to packed theaters, have come down in a world in which conjuring is considered outdated and are in debt and behind on their rent and bills. To add to their problems, Di Spelta keeps demanding the restoration of his wife during Marvuglia's performance (which includes Iervolino performing a few actual magic tricks, one of which has its own twist, a sort of mini lesson about trusting our perceptions).

In an attempt to deal with the problem of Di Spelta, Marvuglia hits upon the fairy-tale-esque solution of giving him a box (with a symbolically mirrored lid) that Marvuglia tells the highly jealous, possessive husband will restore his wife to him when he opens it if he has true trust and faith in her; otherwise, to open the box will be to lose her forever. As part of convincing Di Spelta to accept this idea, Marvuglia also pushes him onto a path of radical philosophical solipsism, working to persuade him that his perceptions create the world around him. (We might read the games of solitaire that both Zaira and Di Spelta play as a prefiguring symbol of this solipsism, much as Marvuglia's plans to use recorded applause in his act reflect the creation of his own, illusive reality.) As the remainder of the play unfolds, we see that Marvuglia is all too successful, but also that he is successful only to the degree that Di Spelta uses these ideas in order to avoid responsibility for himself and his actions (at one point, Marvuglia gives Di Spelta a clear out and an indication that his wife's absence is not in fact magical that Di Spelta cannot bring himself to take). This avoidance, though, can become its own trap - once one embraces the idea that reality is unreal, or even just lives as if one believes it, can one ever be sure again of anything not being an illusion? Sparno's performance renders Di Spelta's journey hilarious and tragic, and Iervolino and the fantastic Romano create a great dynamic as the often-quarreling Marvuglia and Zaira. If getting lost in the play's layers of illusion is not the best outcome for Di Spelta, this production of The Great Magic makes it great fun for the audience.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

More from the 2024 In Scena! Italian Theater Festival:

News: In Scena! Italian Theater Festival NY 2024 Announces Performance Schedule and Awards

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Review: "Sciara - Prima c'agghiorna" Poignantly Presents a Little-Known Part of Women's History


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