To the earliest humans, everything was magic, from the rising and setting of the Sun to the way that flint could change a pile of dry sticks and leaves into a fire. That is to say, the everyday processes by which they lived were incomprehensible to them, and they called upon their invisible gods (usually through the medium of priests) to grow their crops, protect their animals and make the people fertile and prosperous. The priests would bestow blessings, sprinkle things with water and arrange for human sacrifices as necessary.
It is much the same for us today. I am typing this onto my PC, but I have no idea how that machine works (I know to press control+alt+delete if I get the endless hourglass). You may be less ignorant than I, but even if you know how it works, do you know why? And if you know that, do you know why certain chemicals will make hair grow on the head of a bald man? Or do you, like me, call for the priest – the IT Specialist or the medico – and watch them wave their hands and effect cures that even they can’t explain?
We smugly believe that we are living in an age of science, where every result can be reliably reproduced. But the Egyptian farmer of 1400 B.C., who believed that if he sacrificed an ox each spring the banks of the Nile would overflow, also thought that he had found a reliable relationship between cause and effect. Our science is better than his (which we now call “magic”), but it is not infallible. I respectfully refer you to the December 13 issue of the New Yorker, in which, in an article entitled “The Truth Wears Out”, Jonah Lehrer describes a series of broadly-accepted scientific findings which turned out to be subsequently irreproducible.
It was this smugness which the great British thinker and writer G.K. Chesterton targeted for most of his life, and in Magic – now being faithfully, and beautifully, reproduced by the Washington Stage Guild – he aimed at the nexus of science, faith, magic, delusion and madness. He got it, too.
A British Duke (Vincent Clark), in order to forestall a conflict between his fanciful Irish niece Patricia (Madeline Ruskin) and her hardheaded brother Morris (Daniel Kenner), who is returning from America, has inexplicably engaged a professional conjurer (Nick DePinto) for the evening’s entertainment. We see the conjurer first in the quiet dark of the garden, dressed in his flowing robes, where Patricia mistakes him for a fairy and he encourages her mistake. The conjurer is playing with her but he articulates Chesterton’s real feelings about the invisible universe, which to him is composed of God and the angels: “Daughter of men,” the conjurer says, “if you would see a fairy as he truly is, look for his head above all the stars and his feet amid the floors of the sea…They are the Elemental Spirits, and any one of them is larger than the world.”
But faith in magic, like faith in science and like the human heart, is designed to be broken, and when the conjurer appears at the door and assumes civilian garb, Patricia is crushed and Morris – who equates faith with fraud and hates mystery – is enraged. Nonetheless, the company – which also includes a man of science, Dr. Grimthorpe (David Bryan Jackson, who also does a good job with the sound) and a man of faith, the Rev. Cyril Smith (Matt Bassett) – settles in for the show. It is a more impressive show than any of them, including the conjurer, expect and it leaves open the question of whether the party has seen a series of conjurer’s tricks or a real intervention from the invisible universe. Another way of saying this is: just how ignorant are we?
I cannot overstate how good DePinto is in this, and the cast almost unanimously rises to his quality. Not only does he perform the magic with facility and flair (Joe Largess is the Consulting Magician) but he manages to make the play’s 98-year-old words fresh and compelling. The conjurer is a complicated man, full of bravado but riddled with doubt, haunted by his past but brave in its face, and DePinto gets all of it. DePinto’s a good actor, but this is the best I’ve ever seen him, and by a considerable margin.
Clark is also at his very best in this. The Duke is a marvelous creation, who in the whimsicality of his thought processes is fully the equal of Mrs. Malaprop. (Praising a new building, he notes “I particularly liked that woodwork over the west door–I’m glad to see you’re using the new sort of graining … why, it all reminds one of the French Revolution” and later he summarizes the origin of the species in this surprising way: “First there was Protoplasm–and then there was the Missing Link; and Magna Carta and so on. Why, look at the Insurance Act!”) Clark delivers these lines with the cheery fogginess they need, and his scenes with Lynn Steinmetz, who plays his housekeeper Mrs. Hastings, have the comic timing of a vaudeville act.
Not all the actors operate at this level, and the opening scenes, which involve an argument about the possibility of a new bar in the neighborhood, drags a little. Much of this irrelevant tone is due to the immense passage of time since the play was written and the present age; it is doubtful that we could explain “Dancing With the Stars” to a 1913 audience, either. What is remarkable is how fresh and real Director Alan Wade and the company make this story seem, and how urgent the story’s implications remain, even today.
Perhaps it is the verisimilitude created by Carl Gudenius’ and Paula Wang’s excellent set and Adalia Tonneyck’s period costumes. Or perhaps it is because we breach our faith in magic only at the risk of our own happiness. We may have no use for ghosts or elves, but we would be sad creatures if we were limited only to those things we see with our direct senses. Thus at the end of the play, we see Patricia, alone with the conjurer…and they are in the presence of magic: the kind that, among those so blessed, can be reproduced at will.
By G. K. Chesterton
Directed by Alan Wade
Produced by Washington Stage Guild
Reviewed by Tim Treanor