February 16th, 2017

The Illusionists

On Tuesday, February 14th, we went to see “The Illusionists” at the Marcus Center, which performance was part of the “Associated Bank Broadway at the Marcus Center” series.

The show features seven performers who exemplify various aspects of stage magic as it is currently practiced.

The performance is hosted by Jeff Hobson, a.k.a. “The Trickster” (each performer has a moniker that makes them sound rather like a super-villain team--). Hobson specializes in close-up magic and what used to be called “snappy patter,” a running stream of humorous commentary that was slightly risqué and seasoned by his characterization as an out gay man. (His wardrobe would have been called “flamboyant” anywhere but in the home of Liberace--.) Like most of the performers, he put a new twist on classic tricks, such as the basic “pick a card and don’t show me what it is” trick.

The stylistic contrast between Hobson and Dan Sperry, “The Anti-Conjuror” could hardly be greater. Sperry appears looking like a Goth zombie, in ragged clothing, tattoos, and ghoulish makeup. His “shock illusion” tricks included making a coin vanish by apparently pushing it into his right eye socket, and then producing the marked coin from a cut in the skin on his left forearm. His gleefully creepy manner and patter was quite entertaining, and, in the second act, he performed a lengthy sequence of rapid-fire productions, substitutions, and vanishes that showcased extraordinary skill at sleight of hand.

Kevin James, “The Inventor”, was one of the most classically styled performers, doing the large, prop-centered illusions found in big magic shows of old. In one trick, he assembled a dummy in view of the audience, which then “came to life” as a dwarf. In another, he “accidentally” cut one of his assistants in two with a chain saw, and then restored him. Although neither trick was that hard to suss out as to how it was done, they were innovatively presented with style and humor. James also did a charming bit with a child from the audience, animating a piece of tissue paper, which he them made into a paper rose and levitated, and then transformed into a genuine rose.

“The Daredevil,” Jonathan Goodwin, is a bit different. Billed as “an accomplished knife thrower, archer, escape artist, fakir, martial artist, free diver, aerialist, and rock climber,” the program also notes that there are no illusions involved in his performance, “everything you see him do is very, very real.” In this show, Mr. Goodwin performed an archery act, showing his exceptional skill with the crossbow, being able to hit and split a sheet of newsprint edge on. That it took him two tries underscored the reality of the performance. The act culminated with bursting a balloon held on the head of his assistant while he was blindfolded. While real, I am pretty sure there is an inobvious but clever trick to the performance, which however, takes nothing away from the skill and nerve of Mr. Goodwin and his assistants.

Colin Cloud, “The Deductionist” does what used to be called a “mentalist” act, of the sort performed by Dunninger or Kreskin, but updated. Drawing on the popularity of the “Sherlock” TV series, he purports that at least some of his effects are obtained purely by observation and deduction. Although he shows an excellent grasp of how to manipulate audience members, and skill at some other tricks that Houdini and Scarne would have recognized, some of the others could not possibly have been accomplished by any deductive means—such as taking the product of three supposedly randomly selected three-digit numbers and coming up with 1875021417920, which broke down to the (alleged) number of people in the audience, the day’s date, and the hour and minute (9:20PM) of the pronouncement.

“The Manipulator,” An Ha Lim, has won numerous international prizes for his skills, and put on a beautiful performance in the first act, producing hundreds of cards seemingly out of thin air. (In magic parlance, “manipulations” refer to such things as single-handed card fans, “waterfalls,” palming, and substitution, which require great skill, dexterity, and strength.) He also ended the show with a very clever and amusing sequence of tabletop manipulations and substitutions, which we could easily see due to a hand-held camera and on-stage video screen.

One of the headlining acts of the show was “The Escapologist,” Andrew Basso, who performed the notorious “Water Torture Cell” escape, made famous by Houdini. While I have great respect for Mr. Basso’s nerve, skill, and endurance, I found the act somewhat disappointing, because it totally de-mystifies the famous trick. It is still very impressive—the “official” time for his escape was two minutes, thirty seconds, but in fact Basso was submerged longer than that, as the count didn’t start until the top of the cage was locked down, which meant he had to go more like three minutes and a half without breathing. Unfortunately, showing us how it is done downgrades the effect from an “illusion” to a stunt. Not that Houdini didn’t do stunts—escaping from a straitjacket while hanging upside down from a crane in full view has little mystery about it other than that it can be done at all—but I’m sorry to see one of the most famous effects in history lose its glamour.

All in all, we were very happy to have seen this show. The performances by James, Sperry, and Lim were worth the price of admission alone, and the others all showed great style, skill, nerve and cleverness worthy of admiration.

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