Moving house is always fraught with stress. Memories must be packed up with the dishes and carted along with the impossibly heavy sofa bed. Cross-town treks (except when moving up) are more nuisance than rebirth while inter-city or provincial relocation allows mere acquaintances to slip away and test the bond of so-called friendships. Most certainly the Mother of Them All is the forced ideological upheaval that drives families from their traditional homeland to the brave new world of, say, Argentina. Like the United States, a land of hope, apparent freedom and unbridled entrepreneurship. But what if the new-found land is no better than the abandoned soil? Does one weep or burst into a Broadway song? Neither! Not when the “thud-less” waltzes of Johann Strauss and soaring arias of Giuseppe Verdi waft out of the Victorola and into the hearts and feet of the Viennese and Italian newcomers that populate Lillian Groag’s 1952 world in her family-rich memoir, The Magic Fire.
Led by Jackie Maxwell’s understanding direction, framed by Sue Lepage’s marvellously-detailed living-room set, all awash, like a fine Pinot Grigio, with Louise Guinand’s stellar lighting plot, the probing examination of how totalitarian regimes take root and selectively flourish rings with much mirth and truth, only marred by the playwright’s annoying penchant for cliché.
Narrator/confessor Lise Berg (Tara Rosling, convincingly under the skin) keeps a watchful eye and unabashed mouth on the comings and goings of the two unlikely tribes that share the same postal code as General Henri Fontannes (Dan Chameroy, resplendent in his late-act finery, if too amiable by half for a state murderer). Jewel of the show is Young Lise (Lila Bata-Walsh) whose acid tongue and incessant questions (“What’s a foreskin?”) are the perfect metaphor for youthful naïveté and whose only false note (amidst the copious amounts of Flying Dutchman motifs and operatic interventions) is the decades-too-early “fine” in response to an edict from familial authority.
The rest of Lise’s clan gel nicely in their common heritage: Sharry Flett, the perfect “smooth things over” mother; Ric Reid, the brooding opera devotee and father who must come to terms with his inadvertent betrayal of the maid’s (Waneta Storms) brother and “special” treatment from “Uncle” Henri (the corpses of progress pile up to the point that the family must move again), and Patricia Hamilton—worldly great-aunt whose solution to everything is the next steamer to Paris.
Not coincidentally, the surname Berg is the same as one of Vienna’s most creative and forward-looking composers: Alban Berg, whose Violin Concerto and its homage to a too-soon-dead child (Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler, “To the memory of an angel”) fits the play’s theme like a glove. Not to be outdone, the Italian brood’s called Guarneri: not quite as remarkable as Stradivarius but well-enough known to carry the torch for some of the planet’s finest musical craftsman.
Papa is served up with passion and argumentative brilliance (the pedigree of tenors and that “Greek soprano” a constant pleasure) but a semi-believable accent by Michael Ball (a recurring problem in this tale of other nationalities—where the radio announcer sounds more CBC than the propaganda-on-the-air People’s network). His daughters give the script much of its punch: Elena (Goldie Semple) the sharp-tongued actor (“Chekhov knew everything” indeed!) brilliantly foiled by Paula (rendered oh-so-broadly by Donna Belleville) who regales young Lise with all manner of imagined and real-life atrocities that have the adults shuddering (yet the half-serious offering of hemlock at tea time is a small stroke of brilliance that links wonderfully to the pages-earlier Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland reference). The clear audience favourite is the irascible matriarch, Nonna (Jennifer Phipps in top form). From her mouth spews a litany of invective—matched with the gift of selective hearing—that most can only dream of saying.
With literary and musical references as thick as mosquitoes in Winnipeg (but please, no matter how “cute,” scrap the threadbare Für Elise for the overlong piano lesson and perhaps something less German and more Viennese than Der Rosenkavalier for the last waltz), it falls to the native-born Argentineans to drive Groag’s points home.
Henri’s long-ago school chum, Alberto Barcos (Jay Turvey, oozing with style and irony in every line) is the fearless editor who doesn’t hesitate to criticize the Peronistas. Early on, his powerful bud outs him as a homosexual but the implications of that fact are never explored, making the inclusion seem more like “Well, duh, and of course he’s gay” than a plot point of value.
Admittedly, Groag likes a “big play.” And she’s got one. There’s certainly something for everyone but also a feeling that, like Berg’s marvellous if dense 12-tone technique, there are so many threads that the whole gets lost in the Tango. But, no matter, a pearl of wisdom (soon after the table is set with panache and a saucy towel salute by the displaced gang) clarifies the entire proceedings: “Art is life. Nice is entertainment.” Touché. JWR