Alakazam! See a middle-aged man regress to a bug-eyed, slack-jawed 10-year-old while watching eight magicians!
So it was Tuesday night as the Illusionists brought their latest production to the National Theatre for a “Magic of the Holidays” show that runs through Sunday.
But while the moderately entertaining, family-geared evening helmed by director and creative producer Neil Dorward impressed with its sheer now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t astonishments, it sometimes dragged, particularly in the second half; its stars’ techniques occasionally outshone their stage presence; and there seemed to be a glitch and some extra techie huddling during an extended intermission.
That made me wonder if there was possibly a missing act and if the post-intermission plodding was time padding to make up for a problem. (An inquiry along those lines yielded no answers. I guess magicians don’t really like talking about their work. Who knew?)
These diabolist dudes, and one dudette, are consummate pros. There’s the soft-spoken Valentin Azema, who transports light bulbs, paper bags, and, um, himself here and there around the stage. Gilding the lily, in “explaining” how he does this, he performs an even more striking variation.
The Illusionists: Magic of the Holidays closes December 8, 2019. Details and tickets
But while his skills dumbfound us, Azema takes his whole understated schtick too far. His thick French accent puts him at a communicative disadvantage to begin with, and then he says, sardonically, “thank you for your excitement” when the audience doesn’t respond to his liking.
I think what he’s really seeing is an audience thrown by the lack of an emotive suspense arc around what he’s doing. All the more so because the crowd includes a lot of kids who rely on that contextualizing of his feats in what is, to them, a strange new world.
Azema’s own seeming lack of excitement, which I assume is meant to feel amusingly deadpan, instead throws off the rhythm of his act. In trying, understandably, to dodge the stereotypical magician huckster persona, he seems to have shed any persona at all. It’s a real problem–not of magic but of stage magic.
Englishmen Darren “Dizzy” Partridge, “the trickster,” and Steve Valentine, “the showman,” have almost the opposite challenge. They come across as so eager to please that, despite their bewitching skills and humor, they sometimes give off a disquieting sense of desperation.
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Dizzy’s the crowd warmer, and his balloon, card, and other gags are wonderful, as is much of his physical comedy. But the broad Vaudeville clowning sometimes feels more manic than magic. He makes us want to help him, which can be a powerful audience-involving stage aura in itself, but the vibe is often more needy than canny, and it feels now and then a little off pitch.
Valentine is the suave Londoner talking rings around his audience volunteers as he teleports their chosen, signed playing card from one spot to another. Repeatedly.
It was the card equivalent of a shaggy dog story. Call it a shaggy card trick. It was supposed to get more amazing the longer it went on, and in a theoretical way it did, but in a theatrical way it didn’t. With the on-stage videographer documenting every move with close-ups, the act bogged down, and though I couldn’t prove it in court, that’s where I wondered if Valentine was playing for time to pad this not-inexpensive two-hour show.
“Daredevil” Jonathan Goodwin had no such troubles with his energized handcuffed-with-complications performance. His interactions with the audience were crisp and funny and nerve-wracking in the best way. Watching a gentle woman volunteer — Eden, I think her name was? — get into the spirit of smacking his duct-taped face pushed the “family friendly” label of the show to interesting limits. Don’t try this at home, kids–unless you live at Madame Madeleine’s House of High-Heeled Correction.
Florian Sainvet, another Frenchman, is called “the manipulator.” In my milieu, such labels suggest passive-aggressive posturing in group therapy, but I was relieved to discover that here it referred to his capacity to do wondrous things with cards and other objects while robot dancing, Terminator style, in a sci-fi space suit right out of a Daft Punk video. He says not a word, regarding us knowingly and spookily and soulfully. Valentine and Dizzy could take cool lessons from him.
The “delusionist,” Stuart Macleod, is a smarmy Scottsman who can turn water into wine and must be a hoot at Passover seders and Easter dinners. He offered some acerbic information about his deranged family before doing unspeakable things to his tongue. He’s the type of fella you’d want to go to a pub with, but watch your wallet. I also enjoyed his hide-the-human-pea bit with Goodwin, despite a slight mishap.
Then there are the suave, spectacular quick-change artists, Sos and Victoria Petrosyan, a Guiness World Record holding husband-and-wife team. I wish the slowpokes in the Macy’s men’s fitting rooms would take a cue from them.
I confess that an intro with flight around Philippe Dumas’s sky-scraper projections had me hoping for more techno-dazzle throughout the evening. And besides the water-into-wine miracle, there wasn’t really anything particularly seasonal about this holiday show except for Evan Duffy’s electro-carol musical score and a sweet but cheesy ending bit from Valentine about explaining snow to his young daughter.
Still, it was an engaging visit to the National Theatre, with masters of misdirection far more professional than those polishing their acts across Pennsylvania Avenue this week.
The National Theatre presents The Illusionists: Magic of the Holidays, directed by Neil Dorward. Lighting by Hugo Bosseny. Costumes by Angela Aaron. Video by Philippe Dumas. Illusion director and consultant, Mark Kalin. Associate director and choreographer, Jenn Rapp. Composer, Evan Duffy. Writer and magic consultant, David Regal. Set designer and technical director, Vincent Schonbrodt. Associate producer, Jacob Harvey. Creative producer, Simon Painter. Executive producer, Tim Lawson. Featuring: Valentin Azema, Dizzy, Jonathan Goodwin, Stuart MacLeod, Florian Sainvet, Sos and Victoria, and Steve Valentine. With April Anneberg, Manon Chaney, Rob Coglitore, and Todd Hampton. Reviewed by Alexander C. Kafka.