Off-Broadway Theater Review: CHARLATAN (Ars Nova)

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by Dmitry Zvonkov on March 31, 2014

in Theater-New York


In a way shows that are pure spectacle – acrobat, dance, magic – must achieve a higher level of virtuosity to be successful than, say, theatrical plays. Even a flawed play can be satisfying. An abundance of drama, for instance, can help take our attention away from the superficiality of the themes; a great actor can turn even trite dialogue into something special; and an inspired director can make an admirable show out of a questionable script. But for pure spectacle to be satisfying not only must the performers’ technique be perfect but the feats on display have to Vinny DePonto stars in CHARLATAN at Ars astonishing; our response to it all must be “Wow!”

Charlatan, co-written by Josh Koenigsberg and magician and “mind-reader” Vinny DePonto, and performed by Mr. DePonto under Andrew Neisler’s direction, ostensibly attempts to explore deception and self-deception through a series of illusions. These include sleight of hand, clairvoyance, telepathy, and other displays of apparently extrasensory powers. The show at Ars Nova is bookended with Mr. DePonto telling us that we are all liars and that we are our own best deceivers. That last bit is supposed to be an epiphany that we are meant to experience viscerally by the end of the performance. Unfortunately, Charlatan never manages to make a meaningful connection between its feats and its themes. This leaves just the tricks. And the extent to which one is entertained by these largely depends on how amazing one finds them.

The charming and charismatic Mr. DePonto has a magnetic stage presence; an expert at his craft and a consummate showman, he is a pleasure to watch. And from my laymen’s perspective his technique seems flawless. Almost. Most of the time. In fact, if you like magic and enjoy being an accomplice to your own amazement, don’t read any further and just go see the show, as I fear that what follows will sound like it’s coming from a cynical jaded curmudgeon, and I’d hate Vinny DePonto in CHARLATAN, now playing at Ars Nova.for it to serve as a wet blanket to those fortunate few who still burn with the flame of childlike wonder.

Personally, I have a predilection for card tricks. They have about them the purity of honest deception. There are no see-through blindfolds, no bolts that are supposed to be tight when they have in fact been loosened, no shills or hidden microphones or disappearing palaces. It’s just skill, sleight of hand; it’s a magician misdirecting you right in front of your eyes, and when done well not only can you not see how he’s doing it, you can’t even tell that he is doing it. My favorite portions of Mr. DePonto’s show are the card tricks.

The problem is that in some of his other numbers his deceptions don’t feel quite as honest – there is, or seems to be, trickery in the tricks. I won’t give a specific example from the show (that would be a spoiler), but I’ll give you a “for instance”: If he claimed to be able to determine from your facial expressions a word you’ve written on a piece of paper, it feels dishonest and it isn’t nearly as satisfying when in Vinny DePonto in CHARLATAN at Ars Nova.fact his assistant was surreptitiously looking over your shoulder and told him what you wrote. Rather than being an elegant misdirection, it feels like a lie.

These sorts of tricks also have the effect of diminishing the truly remarkable skills in Mr. DePonto’s possession. It is true that almost, if not all, successful magicians practice both “honest” and “dishonest” deception. The problem in the case of Charlatan is that the mechanics behind many of Mr. DePonto’s illusions are too easy to figure out; too often I feel I can see how he’s accomplishing them. Now, I might be wrong about exactly how he’s doing it. But the point is, I shouldn’t have a clue. It all has to look like magic, like it’s impossible – like it’s Bigfoot. Regrettably, a little too much of Charlatan comes off like a man dressed up in a clever Bigfoot disguise.

photos by Ben Arons

Ars Nova, 511 West 54th Street
scheduled to end on April 12, 2014
for tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit

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