BWW Reviews: Blackbird Theater's beautifully acted MAGIC opens at Shamblin Theatre

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Wes Driver directs a thoroughly charming and beautifully acted revival of G.K. Chesterton's first play, Magic, now onstage at the Shamblin Theatre on the David Lipscomb University campus in a sumptuously appointed production from Blackbird Theatre Company. Featuring a stellar cast of Nashville stage professionals, Magic might best be described as a gentle drawing-room comedy from the post-Edwardian period (it debuted in 1913) that somehow remains relevant and intriguing almost 100 years after its premiere.

Styled as a slight romantic comedy - in a nicely filmed prologue, young Patricia Carleon (Amanda Card-McCoy) meets a mysterious figure in the forest (played by David Compton), who convinces her he is indeed a fairy - the play's action takes place on the estate of an eccentric Duke (Chris Bosen), whose amiable outlook is exemplified by his ability to always see both sides of any argument. When Patricia's fairy appears at the estate's manor house, he reveals himself to be a magician hired to provide an evening's entertainment for the estate's habitués - he is known simply as "The Conjurer" throughout the play's swiftly moving 90 or so minutes of running time - and the "fairy tale" that Patricia has created in her mind  gives way to reality bathed in the glow of romantic interplay.

Chesterton's play - written at the behest of George Bernard Shaw, who implored his old friend to contribute to the British stage canon in some way after his success in other literary genres - clearly pays homage to the Shavian way of presenting thoughtful, insightful discourse via the creation of what might nominally be perceived as "slight" theatrical diversion. Herein, Chesterton creates characters who are forthright in their convictions, investing in each of them the ability to eloquently express their opinions, while giving audiences the opportunity to question their own views in the process.

Thus, this romantic comedy is underscored by serious philosophical thought made more palatable by stagecraft, with a certain winking nod toward the magical transformations only accessible to we mere mortals through theatrical endeavors. It might not be earth-shattering drama, or laugh-out-loud farce, but it makes you think. And isn't that what all theater should be about?

In this manner, Magic poses several questions: If we can accept as fact that good (as in our mind's conception of what God is) exists in the world, then can we - or must we - accept the possibility that evil (personified by the Devil, in the form of evil spirits) also exists? If we can recognize that miracles do happen in life, can we then turn around and deny the supernatural as mere fakery?

Clearly, Magic gives its audience much to ponder and, thanks to Driver's innate sense of pacing and his remarkable eye for casting, the play (despite its Edwardian trappings amid the English countryside) remains rather fresh and contemporary. And while it seems unlikely anyone might be reduced to madness because they can't explain how a magic trick works (the plot turns on this very happenstance), somehow Driver and company make it a plausible reality.

Driver's aesthetic and his complete command of the play is evident throughout the production and his ability to direct his cast, so that the play's action moves at a good pace without feeling rushed, is noteworthy. Obviously, he is able to keep his cast focused on the task at hand and they remain resolutely committed to their characters throughout.

Card-McCoy plays Patricia with a sense of wonder and girlish glee that belies her more serious nature, which makes her performance all the more engaging as the plot develops. If you are seated close enough to the stage, you must pay close attention to Card-McCoy's expressive eyes, which telegraph to you exactly what is going through Patricia's mind. Compton, as The Conjurer, gives a portrayal that is multi-faceted: he very ably shows us his character's inner turmoil by conveying the demonic forces that are fighting for the man's very soul.

Conversely, the onstage romantic interplay between Card-McCoy and Compton lends a slight effervescence to the proceedings when things seem to totter close to the abyss of too grim, archly dramatic theatricality. Card-McCoy is at times coquettishly droll in the lovely delivery of her lines, while Compton cuts a dashing and handsome figure as the mysterious magic man.

Zack McCann makes the most of his altogether too brief time onstage, playing Patricia's expatriate brother Morris with just the right amount of forward-thinking skepticism that is ascribed primarily to his new life in America. McCann's Morris, probably the play's most contemporary character, is filled with bravado and ambition, the very embodiment of the callous American businessman with his disdain for any hint of sentimentality.

The amazing versatility of Daniel Hackman allows the actor to lose himself completely in the role of the Rev. Cyril Smith, the local vicar who is at the estate to ask for a donation from the Duke for the creation of a pub in the neighborhood. Hackman is, clearly, one of the best actors to be found on local stages and with this performance he adds to his burgeoning resume, crafting a performance that is completely believable and remarkably focused. That he has one of the script's best lines ("I object to a quarrel because it always interrupts an argument," he says as things begin to heat up in the drawing room.) only helps to ensure that audiences will talk about him after the curtain has fallen.

Alan Lee, cast as the agnostic Dr. Grimthorpe (the local physician who has known both Patricia and Morris in Ireland and now lives within sight of their uncle's - The Duke - estate) provides the counterpoint to the vicar's religion-based beliefs and does so with gusto. Lee is perfectly cast in the role, his own middle class distaste for common action and thought obvious throughout.

Chris Bosen attacks the role of the daft Duke with comic dash and swagger, giving the character a high-pitched, upper crust British accent that both amuses and irritates. Robyn Berg is cast as Hastings, the housekeeper/private secretary (it's somewhat unclear what her post is on the estate), and plays her with characteristic confidence and focus.

Bradley Jones' superior set design creates a visually stunning backdrop for the play's action, transforming the Shamblin Theatre into a British manor that is artfully and tastefully rendered, highlighted by Stephen Moss' exceptional lighting design that is at once utilitarian and dramatically evocative. Designer Hannah Schmidt's exquisitely crafted costumes clothe the characters in the garments of the time period, while providing them with necessary modern updates that make stage movement more fluid.

Finally, credit must be given to artistic director Driver, managing director Greg Greene, producer Randy Spivey and the rest of the Blackbird Theater team for creating an ambience in the Shamblin Theatre that ensures the audience find themselves completely immersed in the magic of Magic. Their attention to detail is masterful - whether it's the three magicians delighting audience members with sleight of hand before curtain, the beautiful tabletop decorations, or the bottles of water bearing quotes from Chesterton at intermission - and other theater companies would do well to follow their lead.

Magic. By G.K. Chesterton. Directed by Wes Driver. Produced by Randy Spivey. Presented by Blackbird Theatre at the Shamblin Theatre, David Lipscomb University, Nashville. Through August 27. Visit the company website at www.BlackbirdNashville.com

 

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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