Theater Review: THE ILLUSIONISTS – LIVE FROM BROADWAY (North American Tour)

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by Lawrence Bommer on February 23, 2017

in Theater-Chicago


No spells get cast here, no phantoms materialize. There is no mystical suspension of the laws of physics, just our disbelief. Now in a too-short stop at Chicago’s Oriental Theatre, the national tour of The Illusionists is an awe-striking evening of artful dodging (notice it’s not titled “The Magicians”). This kleptomaniacal bonanza comes rich with the kind of dazzling misdirection that “illusions” feed on. Simply put, seven professional pretenders interactively engage with the audience, their every action conveyed on a huge monitor above the stage. It makes sense: Many of these are tricks of the light and the moment, products of prestidigitation and sleight of hand. The hand really is quicker than the eye. Now you see it, now you don’t. I mean, how many “miracle workers” can make it snow from crumpled shreds of a napkin?

Emceeing the two-act, 140-minute entertainment is the ingratiatingly fey Jeff Hobson, here called The Trickster. Spouting occasionally “blue” gay banter, this urbanely epicene charmer, called the “host of Las Vegas,” specializes in card-sharping dexterity—but it’s no less sharp-edged than his throwaway zingers and Liberace-like one-liners.

Holmes smoothly introduces the other pranksters. They run a performance gamut from sardonic and subversive counter-magic to old-fashioned, aiming-to-please bravura showmanship. Employing crowd psychology, Colin Cloud (The Deductionist) is a Scottish fan of Sherlock Holmes with a flair for criminal profiling and forensic feats. Like several on this stage, he knows how to find a marked card in a stacked deck. Best of all, based on “tells,” “give-aways,” and “reveals” that only he perceives, Cloud can read the deepest thoughts of audience members from the longest distance. No poker face can resist his seemingly psychic perceptions. But he can also induce as well as deduce, getting the audience to think of words that are later revealed in coded form in the very programs we’re holding!

More old-school with his first-act finale, Italian escape artist Andrew Basso (The Escapologist) recreates Harry Houdini’s “Water Torture Cell.” Chained hand and foot by a witnessing audience member, Basso is suspended in a transparent water chamber. As we watch, close up thanks to the closed-circuit camera, he must hold his breath and break out of leg irons, handcuffs and the locks on the top without drowning before our horrified eyes. Inarguably, what Basso does is no illusion. Equally traditional is Jonathan Goodwin (The Daredevil) who uses a crossbow to imitate Robin Hood’s shooting, not of an apple, but of balloons in close proximity (more than we realize until later) with at least one female assistant.

Known as The Inventor, Kevin James is a wonder-maker whose forte is the inexhaustibly fascinating stunt of seeming to divide a body in half. Seeing is not believing here, because what the eyes affirm nonetheless boggles the mind into amazed incredulity. Like the never stable Scrödinger’s cat, James also manages to make a seemingly solid glass water bottle as porous or as unbreakable as he likes. Likewise, South Korean phenom An Ha Lim (The Manipulator) can make playing cards appear en masse out of thin air—and ends the evening by creating a lovely sign-off from a very malleable deck.

As Dan Sperry’s title implies, The Anti-Conjuror, billed as “Marilyn Manson meets David Copperfield,” delivers macabre wizardry and thinking thrills that could easily trigger the gag reflex. Pulling a rabbit out of a hat, in a way you never wanted to see, he also manages to secret a large coin in his right eye or in the very folds of his stomach. It’s only revealed when it’s bloodily extricated before our bugged-out eyes. In a more aesthetic tour-d’illusion, he transforms strips of paper into live birds, including a giant white cockatoo.

The cumulative effect of The Illusionists’ marvelous make-believe and beauteous bafflement is what everyone needs—a child-like astonishment that rejuvenates and enthralls on the spot. Doug Henning, Penn & Teller, Ricky Jay—they’ve got major competition from seven seeming sorcerers.

photos by Joan Marcus

The Illusionists – Live From Broadway
North American tour
presented by Broadway in Chicago
Oriental Theatre, 24 W Randolph St
ends in Chicago on February 26, 2017
tour continues through June 4, 2017
for dates and cities, visit The Illusionists

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