TORONTO–Playwright Elliot Hayes has accomplished the formidable task of tailoring Robertson Davies’ theme-packed novel into a two-act play with varied degrees of success. The compelling story of a magician’s true beginnings unfolds amid a flurry of underlying themes. The account is passionately told by a solid cast of performers, but there were times when an abundance of activity onstage added more confusion than substance.
The play opens with the stage in semi-darkness as illusionist Magnus Eisengrim is levitated under a sheet. The blanket is then torn away with Eisengrim reappearing from the side as the lights come up. Nicholas Pennell plays Eisengrim with enigmatic charm. At the home of his companion, Liesl Vitzliputzli, Eisengrim entertains longtime friend Dunstan Ramsay and filmmaker Roland Ingestree. The evening becomes a recant of Eisengrim’s life. Ingestree wants to make a film that tells the truth about the magician’s past.
The reality turns out to be more sordid than Eisengrim’s current identity as the enchanting tux-and-tails attired magician. What unravels is the story of the son of a Baptist parson who was tormented by other townsfolk because of his saintly, yet sexually wayward mother. Eisengrim learned his craft at the expense of his innocence, catering to the sexual whims of an old magician. The stage is transformed into a carnival freak show with a cast of eccentric personalities.
Transitions move swiftly between past and present with effective use of simple sets. Magical effects, for the most part, enhance the captivating tale. Flashback sequences are effectively told with the grown-up character following his youthful character through scenes. The drama is heightened as the grown-up character reacts to emotions related to particular memories with both actors speaking some lines in unison.
Central to the storyline is the recurring question of who killed Boy Staunton , a wealthy industrialist who grew up with Eisengrim and Ramsay. Truth and justice are pivotal issues, along with religion, the devil, homosexuality, the inherent evil in children and the individual’s battle with reality vs. the invisible world of wonders.
Although the wealth of subject matter makes the production somewhat weighty at times, overall the well-directed effort makes for enjoyable fare.
Also among the productions currently being staged at Stratford are “Romeo and Juliet” and a wonderful revival of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore.”
“Romeo and Juliet,” set in the 1920s, is an interesting experiment that comes up short. Costume design is exceptional, but the wardrobe and sets from that time period don’t mesh well with the Shakespearean dialogue. Megan Porter Follows (from TV mini-series “Anne of Green Gables”) is a darling Juliet, but her engaging performance is held back by the comedic portrayal of Romeo by Antoni Cimolino. The lead actor is often upstaged by stronger cast members, including Colm Feore as the fiery Mercutio and Mervon Mehta as the intense Count Paris.