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Wednesday, Mar 31 1999
Kings and Queens of Denial
The Magic Fire. By Lillian Garrett-Groag. Directed by Jack O'Brien. Co-produced by the Berkeley Rep and the Old Globe Theater. Starring Kandis Chappell, James R. Winker, Alexandra Muhler, and Lauren Marie Sliter. At the Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison, Berkeley, through May 7. Call (510) 845-4700.

The Possum Play. By Benjie Aerenson. Directed by Katie Bales. Produced by the Shotgun Players. Starring Mary Eaton Fairfield, Dan Wolf, Beth Donohue, and Ryan Gowland. At the South Berkeley Community Church, 1802 Fairview (at Ellis), Berkeley, through April 19. Call (510) 655-0813.

The Berkeley Rep's production of The Magic Fire is a shot aimed across the bay at Evita, which unfortunately closed too early to be damaged. This new play by Lillian Garrett-Groag is a surprisingly graceful look at the contradictions faced by a bohemian family living in exile under the Peron regime. Near the end, one of the characters says that America is "where fascist dictators become Broadway musicals." Ha! I love this kind of shit, and it's fun to imagine the Berkeley Rep and the Orpheum as cannon-mounted forts, trading volleys across the water.

Garrett-Groag, an actor, director, opera singer, and playwright who grew up in Argentina under the Peron regime, wrote Fire as a memory play, like The Glass Menagerie, with her main character, Lise Berg, appearing as both a girl in 1952, running around her Buenos Aires apartment, and a pantsuited woman looking back today, narrating the action to the audience. Her relatives are well-off bohemians, opera fans from Italy and Vienna who sail to Buenos Aires in the '40s to escape European fascism, only to find themselves living next door to one of Juan Peron's generals.

The play's title refers to the ring of fire in The Valkyrie. Lise's father, a tall and gentle Viennese Jew with a taste for Wagner, tells his daughter all about the flames Wotan lit around BrYnnhilde to keep everyone but a fearless hero (Siegfried) from reaching her. Lise realizes only later that the magic fire surrounding her young head was a genteel mirage of culture and art, and that the hero who woke up the sleeping girl, so to speak, wasn't a romantic man in uniform but a political refugee. (Bernard Shaw would have danced a jig if he'd lived to see this show.) At the age of 7, Lise thinks Gen. Fontannes is an elegant man who brings her chocolate truffles and waltzes her around the living room. He's welcome there because the Bergs have left their political sensibilities in Europe. They've had enough of fascism, and live in a state of refined bohemian denial.

But during a birthday feast for Lise, they hear gunshots in the street and witness a couple of brutal arrests. The general shows up in uniform to make sure everyone's safe. Lise's ancient Italian great-grandmother, a bent and lively antifascisti with a cane -- who says the right thing, always -- squints at the general and asks: "You from da government? Time to get rid of that big Peron, no?" The family goes quiet, and slowly, it occurs to Lise's father that taking no position is impossible. Their serving woman's brother turns up in the kitchen as a refugee from the government, and while the Bergs argue over how or whether to save him, to avoid being a burden he slips back into the street.

The Magic Fire is an example of fine political writing that carries the weight of its themes (illusion, memory, good and evil), as well as its own operatic size (two intermissions), with an uncommon, waltzlike grace. Garrett-Groag balances her serious material with lighthearted assaults on the fourth wall by letting the older, narrating Lise talk to her relatives in 1952. The best bit comes when the great-grandmother overhears Lise talking about writing this play. "You turn us into theater?" she hollers, then grumbles an insult, and turns to the audience. "Git your money back! Go home!"

Of course, the great-grandmother is a crowd-pleaser. So is young Lise, played by Alexandra Muhler (alternating with Lauren Marie Sliter). Muhler is a natural ham, and most of what she does is funny, precocious, and charming -- especially all the swearing and the Tosca death scene she re-enacts by falling off the couch. But the little-girl and old-lady roles have been cranked up a notch by director Jack O'Brien, and there's an air of playing for laughs in both of them that isn't really necessary.

The show is also too long: In the speeches that bookend the play, the adult Lise could go on less about nostalgia, even if nostalgic fuzziness is part of the point. And the climactic scene didn't come off: When a political debate finally flares in the living room, Gen. Fontannes and Alberto the editor trade insults as Lise's father tries to think of the right thing to say. Unfortunately, on opening night the actors kept stepping on each other's lines.

These are quibbles, though. The play is basically solid. The acting and writing, along with Ralph Funicello's chandelier set, create a seductive illusion for the narrating Lise to prick. Barbara Oliver (as a cousin from Paris) gives a chirpy, pluckish speech about the family's mixed heritage; Charles Dean is graceful and strong as Alberto; and James Winker does a sharply observed job as Lise's father, with all his Austrian melancholy and tender nerves. The family listens to the progress of Eva Peron's illness and death on their glowing cabinet radio -- unemotionally, with sarcastic comments -- but when the glamorous Argentinian dies, so does some part of their innocence. That sense of entangledness is what makes The Magic Fire so real.

The Possum Play is also about denial, but "real" doesn't describe it. This is the first Shotgun Player production that's ever left me totally cold. Henry V and others were excellent; Mascara stank; but this strange suburban drama about mah-jongg housewives and mangrove swamps in Florida registered a flat green line on my critic's voltmeter.


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