The Magiis a love story set to music that riffs on that classic holiday short story by O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi.” Under Helen Murray Pafumi’s take, a couple in an indie-rock band are having some bumps in their long relationship and touring endlessly doesn’t help. With its share of comedy, The Magi explores the sacrifices any of us make to keep a good relationship together, even when times are tough.
Helen described the production as “part concert and part love.” She also noted that each performance will feature a performance from emerging, local musicians. That intrigued me as a way to foster cross-cultural exposure amongst musicians and theater performers. We all can use some cross-cultural arts, if not cross-generational awakening, couldn’t we? Nifty.
I recently had the chance to interview several of the key players in this production: Playwright Helen Murray Pafumi, her son Eli Pafumi, as well as the show’s director Kelsey Mesa, and performers Rex Daugherty and Daven Ralston. Read below to hear them discuss a very locally-grown new theater production set to open at The Hub Theater in Fairfax, VA this weekend.
David: As I understand, The Magi “riffs” off of O. Henry’s famous short story about sacrifices people make for those they love.
Helen Murray Pafumi: I call The Magi a riff because it is not an adaptation at all. I make barely an allusion to the original story and there is perhaps one song lyric that nods toward it as well. It was the larger idea of the story that I chose to concentrate on. The Gift of the Magi is a charming tale about sacrificing material possessions for another. But when I thought longer on the story and what I take away from it, my mind went to all the things we compromise, all the parts of ourselves that we sacrifice, when we are in love. I chose to make the couple a band – it’s a scenario where they would be thrown together in close quarters, day in and day out – a major test for any relationship.
And I love plays with music. The Magi edges even closer to a musical because it relies so heavily on the band performance.
This also marks the biggest collaboration for myself and Eli. Eli was tasked with creating music that this band would write – songs of love, relationships, and journeys. Eli has composed for The Hub several times over the past 7 years, but this is absolutely that largest endeavor we have taken on. Thankfully we have a great working relationship and he is fantastic with the cast. The music is almost an albums worth of songs, it sets so much of the tone, rounds out the story and completes the concert/play vibe.
Eli, please describe the music genre and moods of your music for The Magi.
Eli Pafumi: Similar to my own personal songwriting, the genres and moods in The Magi explore different aspects of folk/acoustic, jazz and blues. As the early stages of the play were being developed, the story of Jude and Nix’s eclectic experiences made me feel like they would not be the type to stick to one genre. Each song has its own flavor that makes it uniquely its own but holistically, the music feels like a complete thought that not only accompanies the duo’s journey but compliments their frustrations and joys.
The purpose of the music in The Magi is to help progress the narrative established by my Mother’s writing and deepen the intricacies of their relationship. Jude (played by Rex Daugherty) is a little more stern and thoughtful compared to Nix’s (played by Daven Ralston) goofy nature but the music is where they find common ground. It communicates to the audience that this shared musical passion helps reassure their love, ultimately coexisting with the struggles that make their relationship unique and worth giving things up for.
Kelsey, as director, what would you like audiences to take away after seeing a performance of The Magi?
Kelsey Mesa: I’d like the audience to walk away thinking about love as a creative act, much like writing music or making any kind of art–something that works best when it is whole-hearted, giving, unique, and willing to venture into the unknown.
And, we’re creating a world that feels as much like a small dive bar as possible, that can then flip into a completely different feel and space for the inner monologues. The set will have tables and chairs for the audience, road cases, and rope lighting–everything we need to create the atmosphere that anyone who’s been to a bar to see a band knows well.
Rex, why did you want to perform in The Magi?
Rex Daugherty: I love the structure of it. I think it’s so unique that the show is set up as a concert. The play really has a music “gig” atmosphere which makes the night at the theatre special for the audience. You’re seeing something you don’t typically experience in a normal musical. I also really like that it’s a musical with a different voice than standard musical theatre fare. And as a singer song-writer myself, I really appreciate the opportunity to live both dreams with this production!
You and fellow The Magi actor Daven Ralston perform in a band together that recently also took the name The Magi. How did that come about? Tell me more about performing as the group The Magi while not on stage.
The Magi will be our third production together where we’ve played music in the show. Wild Skyat Solas Nua and Snow Dayat Arts on the Horizon were the others). Through our previous collaborations we discovered we really connected musically and, this past year, we have played a few gigs together outside of theatre. We didn’t have a band name (well, we had a name we joked about…DONUT MOUF…because Daven loves donuts) and we were bouncing around ideas for our group when we both got cast in The Magi. We asked Helen if we could just go ahead and call our band The Magi and she was all for it!
I’ve written songs since I was 15 and sometimes feel that my purest artistic expression is in song writing, despite making my career in theatre. But, because I am a theatre artist, I greatly value the art of collaboration so it’s really exciting to write with Daven. It’s been a fresh voice in my own song writing process as I create with and for someone other than myself.
While we aren’t quitting our day jobs, I think both of us have realized we want music to play a more active role in our artistic lives. We plan to record in January and will continue to look for new opportunities to jam!
Daven, why did you want to perform in The Magi?
Daven Ralston: Two reasons: One, I loved the script immediately. I think it captures so effectively the dialogue of two intimately familiar people. It makes the play move along effortlessly and naturally. The script is funny and playful at the same time that it’s open and honest, and those are qualities I find compelling in relationships. I easily connected with Jude, who is compassionate and frustrating, independent and indecisive, joyful and brooding, spontaneous and pragmatic all in one.
The second reason I wanted to perform in The Magi was the musical aspect. I started my performance career as a musician, so being able to use those skills and passions in a play that relies so heavily on music as a means of storytelling and character development is extremely exciting. Not to mention the genre of the music in the show is one that I particularly love to play!
Please tell me more about performing as the musical group The Magi.
Well I think Rex tackled the bit about how we started playing music together and decided on keeping the name The Magi. Basically, my musical life and theatrical life were separate until I met Rex. I had played my violin some in productions, but when I started working with Rex he found ways to incorporate music into the pieces we were working on that really changed my perspective on how I could use music with theater performance. We realized we worked well together musically outside of a theater space and everything sort of came from that. Since then, we’ve been working on songs and have played a couple gigs and hope to do more. I’ve never really tried to write music before, but that’s something I’ve started doing now that I have someone to work with and bounce ideas off of.
I think our genre is generally described as folk Americana. I think it works well for us because we both connect to the storyteller voice in that type of music but also because we play instruments that are conducive to that sound. Together, the instruments we play include the guitar, violin, banjo, piano, mandolin, a variety of drums, and even a penny whistle (though it has yet to come into use).