Review: Monday Night Magic

Monday
Night Magic
Jan 14, 2013 @ The Players Theatre,
New York City Created by Michael Chaut; Produced by Frank Brents,
Michael Chaut, Todd Robbins, Peter Samelson, & Jamy Ian
Swiss M.C.: Harrison Greenbaum; Performers: Ferdinando Buscema,
Chipper Lowell, and Jason Bishop

Monday Night MagicThis was my fourth visit to
Monday
Night Magic
.  I find the talent to be hit and miss,
however usually there is at least one performer worth the
trip.  The premise is generally the same each time.  A
Master of Ceremonies (usually one of the producers, and Todd
Robbins if you’re lucky…) begins with a welcome, performs a trick
of his own, then introduces the first two performers in the first
45 minute half.  There is an intermission, in which a close-up
performer entertains at the front of the stage while a second
performs at the street exit of the theater.  Back inside 15
minutes later, the M.C. performs another turn, before introducing
the final performer who gets the whole of the last half. It’s that
last performer who makes the show – if it’s not a particularly
strong performer (we’re looking at you, Jeff Moche),  no
stellar 15 minute turn early in the show can save it. The theater
is small – it seats just 200, with a single center aisle. 
That center aisle makes the load in & load out very
cumbersome.  Coupled with a single ticket booth and no ability
to print or mail tickets beforehand – and you’ve got yourself an
arrival nightmare.  As it was on this particular performance,
where a single person purchasing a ticket with credit card problems
led to a 15 minute delay, which ultimately delayed the show start
by half an hour.  That center aisle also makes the halftime
close-up performances difficult to watch.  All that said – we
are talking New York City, and the fact that the producers have
managed to find a venue every week with few breaks for 15 years,
and well – I’ll put up with the hassle for the opportunity. 
As do others; in my four visits, all but one has been a full
house.  Mostly males and presumed magic fans.  God bless
the few young guys who brought dates; the women’s distaste was
visible just behind their forced smiles. I must admit, walking in,
I hadn’t heard of any of that evening’s performers.  Strike
that, I was familiar with Chipper Lowell, but I have no
recollection from where. Harrison
Greenbaum
was out first as MC for the show. 
Wow.  Fantastic.  An Incredibly strong character. 
Hilarious.  He knows who and what he is and it works for
him.  He generally seemed to be having fun with the
audience.  He listened to the audience and was able to work in
lots of improvisation based on opportunities the in
audience responses.  And the magic was incredibly strong.
 In the second half, he performed a Price-Is-Right themed
mental epic with an incredible subtlety to avoid the final
force.  The theme justifies the prop, which I feel has always
looked out of place before.  And the old baby gag, brough
up-to-date and ending with a killer of a final prediction. 
Without the jokes these would be miracles.  With the jokes,
well – they don’t get the reaction they would otherwise because
folks are having a better time laughing than getting fried.  I
just read that he is the warm-up guy for Katie Couric.  I
suggest you see him now while you can – because as soon as he gets
big, I fear he’ll drop the magic. The first performer was Ferdinando Buscema.
An italian with a thick, but understandable accent.  He
performed gift magic or “experience magic” as he terms it.  It
began with a two simple hat tears for two children in the audience
(yes, there were surprisingly a few in the audience for the Monday
8:00 PM start). I believe there was a second trick in the middle,
which I can no longer remember. He ended with a thought-of movie
prediction. And ended, by handing the spectator a gift – which he
claimed might contain the thought-of-DVD, for her to open when she
got home.  A wonderful, and touching moment – which was ruined
seconds later when the spectator opened it at her seat – stopping
the show while she did so while every head in the audience strained
to see if it was, in fact correct.  Nevertheless, a great,
calm start with which to begin a solid show. Chipper
Lowell
came next.  95% comedy / 5% magic.  It
was quite literally one laugh or gag after another. One card
selection, the revelation of which was a kicker at the conclusion
of a cigar box balancing routine.  Lots of one-liners, but
many gut-wrenchingly funny.  You had to stay on your toes to
keep up, and your sides hurt by the end. Intermission. 
Despite some strong magic from Harrison & Ferdinando, I
overhead one “ringleader” in front of me complain that so far he
hadn’t seen any magic yet at Monday Night Magic.  I skipped
the close-up this time visit – it was just too hard to maneuver
into a decent viewing spot. Start of the second half began with
another fabulous (and extended) Harrison Greenbaum turn. 
Honestly – check him out. Finally Jason Bishop
brought illusions to the second half.  Was it possible to
bring Illusions to this stage?  The quite young Jason Bishop
and assistant Kim Hess would show us that it indeed was.  He
began with a talking opener to Origami.  He segued Jason Bishopwell from the talking to
the “prop-spinning” which I feel is always difficult to do. 
Indeed, many illusionists simply “queue the music” and suddenly
turn silent, which appears odd to me. It worked in the small
theater, where you could literally hear every metal flap and sword
as he worked through the routine.  Indeed, in these close
quarters Origami seemed a new beast, though equally as deceptive.
 A minor complaint – I would have liked to have seen the
tabletop a little less “bumpy” in places, if you catch my drift.
Second illusion was Metamorphosis.  He played the “examined”
and surrounded angle in this routine. He had some borderline jokes
 with the audience volunteers, but all-in-all, it was good.
His last illusion was his Steinmeyer exclusive (yes, you read that
right) “Through a Jail Window.”  It’s a bit of an odd
illusion, but I must admit that I was fooled. You can see a shot of
Jason and the prop on YouTube here.
Four examined metal rods block the frame of “jail window” in an
unusual alternating front-back way, which requires some extended
explanations.  Bringing up a child to try stick his head thru
the bars was a great idea on Jason’s part.  The relaxed, calm
manner he spoke to him was heartening. Making fun of another kid
(whom the audience was introduced to earlier by Ferdinando) was
not.  The young boy wore a cape because he loved magic, and to
get made fun of for it – well, Jason just about lost the entire
audience right then and there.  A good recovery after that
poor decision, however. (He was right about one thing, however –
what were his parent’s thinking keeping him out so late?  We
were all thinking it, too). He ended with a card and fan
manipulation routine.  His card spinning at the conclusion got
a great reaction as well.  He clearly takes pride in this
routine. It’s a bold choice to end an illusion show with something
much smaller – but it works.  All in all – I thought he was
quite good.  Some tempo changes throughout might have made it
great.  Too much of the calm, deprecating (to himself and
others) humor and explanations throughout for my taste. 
Nevertheless, all his routines show originality.  It’s
refreshing for once to see an illusionist actually be “cool”, in
stead of just trying to look “cool,” as so many unfortunately do.
Four out of four above-average performers – that’s a real win for
me at MNM.  Harrison was the clear standout for me, with
Chipper in a close second.

Eng Bottles Everywhere!

Critics are (still) raving about Derek DelGaudo and Helder Guimarães’ show, now titled “Nothing to Hide”.  I’d love to see it – but its on the wrong coast for me.  I was, however, intrigued by a recent review of the show in the Los Angeles Times by Charlotte Stoudt.

Image

Derek DelGaudo and Helder Guimarães’ in “Nothing to Hide”

 Firstly, that photo! Is that wall of Eng bottles being used as a backdrop?  My god, there photo shows at least 650 of them! And, just as amazingly, the reviewer is familiar with the term “Eng bottle”:

Even the set has a sense of humor. Lining high upstage shelves are dozens of Eng Bottles, narrow-necked glass flasks each containing a packet of playing cards. A magician’s version of a ship in a bottle, these Engs act as a visual wink at the audience, a reminder that astonishment is a meet-cute between the apparently impossible and a great deal of meticulous work.

Jamie D. Grant of sendwonder.com and creator/seller of the Anything is Possible bottle confirmed for me that he was the creator of all these bottles.  I believe the bottles are also sold in the lobby following the show.

I love the recent resurrection of the Eng bottle. Here are some more fabulous Harry Eng originals online here, here, and here.

Finally, some references for those who want to try creating one for themselves:

  • Allen, Stan. “Impossibottles!” MAGIC: The Independent Magazine for Magicians. Vol 6, #1 / Sep 1996. Pp. 50-51.
  • Foshee, Gary. “The Eng Coin Vise,” in Puzzler’s Tribute: A Feast for the Mind. Ed. David Wolfe & Tom Rodgers. AK Peters : Natick. Pp. 7-9. Cover | Full Title
  • Harris, Paul and Mead, Eric. “Eng’s Bottles” in The Art of Astonishment – Vol. 2. A-1 Multimedia. 1996. Pp. 303-308.
  • McCabe, Pete. “The Deck in the Bottle”. M-U-M. Vol. 91, #7 / Dec 2001. Pp 40-43
  • Setteducati, Mark. “Harry Eng: A Tribute,” in Puzzler’s Tribute: A Feast for the Mind. Ed. David Wolfe & Tom Rodgers. AK Peters : Natick. Pp. 3-5. Cover | Full Title

The Mystic Teakettle – for sale

A year ago, in my review of Steve Cohen’s Carnegie Hall show, I predicted an onslaught of copy-cat magicians performing his now-signature Think-a-drink routine:

I am shocked Owen Magic hasn’t advertised a teakettle at $899 each to fulfill the coming legions of copycats…

Well, it happened.  Today, Steven’s Magic Emporium announced in their weekly e-mail identical-looking apparatus for sale. Even the glasses look similar to those Mr. Cohen uses.  Yours for only $7000.Teakettle

This, fresh off his recent performance of the effect on History Channel’s Lost Magic Decoded special this past October.

Review: Max Maven – Thinking in Person

Max Maven: Thinking in Person
June 14, 2012 @ The Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, New York City, NY
Written and performed by Max Maven; Directed by Alexander Marshall; featuring Melanie Crispin; Scenic design by Alan E. Muraoka; Lighting Design Jules Fisher

Max MavenMax Maven appears off-broadway! What a treat. And he brings with him a royal cast of supporting characters. Alexander Marshall, author of the recent Beating a Dead Horse: The Life and Times of Jay Marshall, son of Jay Marshall and grandson of Al Baker. The lighting director is Jules Fisher who notably performed miracles of his own in lighting the Robert-Houdin Blooming Rosebush for Ricky Jay’s On the Stem (among other accomplishments) and speaker at the Tenth Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. Michael Chaut of New York’s Weekly Monday Night Magic is Associate Producer.

    • Marshall, Alexander “Sandy”. Beating a Dead Horse: The Life and Times of Jay Marshall. New York: Junto Publishing. 2010. 526 pp. Standard edition. Cover | Full Title
    • Steinmeyer, Jim. The Tenth Los Angeles Conference on Magic History. The Los Angeles Conference on Magic History: np. 2007. 99 pp. Cover

In the 1990’s Max authored an editorial in his then-monthly Magic Magazine column “Parallax” in which he voiced the (perfectly sensible) opinion that amateur magicians and professional magicians had fundamental differences which should be openly acknowledged when dealing with each other. This prompted at least one attendee of a subsequent magic convention to jokingly begin wear a badge which read “Max Maven speaks to ME”. So I suspect I am not alone in having a story about Max which begins with the following line:

15 years ago Max Maven yelled at me.

“That is precisely NOT what I did!” he exclaimed at me in a room full of magicians to which he was lecturing. I had sincerely asked what I intended to be a clarifying question around a point which I did not understand: A subtlety left unexplained without which, to me, pointed directly back to the underlying method. I’m certain I did not word my question in the gentlest light, and Max likely took me for a cocky young man (which I was) trying to point out flaws in his routine construction (which I was not). Being likely the only native English speaker in the room at a foreign lecture (delivered in English) likely did not help his perception of me. But though my intentions were good, the response was off-putting. As it sits, I still don’t understand how an intelligent observer overlooks what I now see as a flaw in the handling he presented for our use. But I will accept that the fault rested entirely with my manner and timing of questioning. You don’t easily forget something like that, though, do you?

These were the thoughts filling my head, as I thought about the ensuing 15 years between that experience and the coming evening’s performance. How many thousands of tricks and articles must he have published over that period? How many had I?

I spotted from my seat a handful of “magic celebrities” taking their seats: Dick Cavett, David Blaine, Bill Kalush, and Jeff Hobson. The theater was about half-filled with around 100 people watching.

Max began with a card prediction effect, in which an audience member grabs a packet of cards, which Max then divines all the cards in the chosen packet. Max and the audience member are back-to-back, after each correct divination the card is handed over the spectator’s shoulder to Max, who shows the card to be correct. A nicely framed scene, which effectively draws focus to both the spectator and magician’s faces during the procedure. As always, his divinations are well acted and believable. Here Max displays his many audience management techniques, one example of which he taught in his recent lecture on audience management at EMC. He ends with one card left undivined…a prediction of which is left hanging on the stage. Max abruptly leaves the stage for intermission, leaving the spectator awkwardly on stage to confirm the prediction for herself (and for the audience). The unscripted interplay between the audience and spectator is intriguing – a sort of post-modern end to the first half. (The experience felt very much akin to Penn leaving the stage with Teller drowned in the water torture cell.)

3 more effects in the second half. Max’s 7 Keys of Baldpate routine with a suspended Masterlock which we’ve seen on Art of Magic special years prior. To me, the moment in which 1 of many spectators “feels” instinctively that he has the special key is one of the most unique moments in magic. Next, a bandaged-and-blindfolded pseudo- psychometry routine, in which Max divined objects and serial numbers of items and bills which audience members produced from their handbags. The effect ended with a design duplication of an audience drawing made while blindfolded. His handling here of the blindfolding was superb. I don’t believe his hands ever approached the face, and there appeared to be no adjustments, squinting, or other manipulation of the end state of the volunteers’ bandaging. I contrast this with a performance I’d seen by Marc Salem a few month’s prior which felt infinitely less clean, less pure, with Marc’s hands repeatedly adjusting or otherwise manipulating his bandages during the blindfolding process.

The performance concluded with another post-modern twist: a prediction left unfulfilled, never to be revealed or confirmed.

This focus on the tricks, however, doesn’t do the performance justice. These were Max’s well-honed, signature items – the focus here clearly rests in Max’s original script.

It was all Max: lots of Asian influences, erudite references, and inside jokes. If you didn’t know he could speak Japanese, he makes sure you know. If you weren’t clear that he is the smartest guy in the room, he reminds you.  It was his old MAGIC Magazine “parallax” column writ large on on stage. Dozens of the references I didn’t get – one couldn’t possibly get them all – and at times it felt wearisome and like patter. But it was definitely Max through and through – which is an achievement. It was, indeed, something that “you don’t know you want.  Something you might know you want the next time, but you never knew you wanted before.”

Review: The Spencers

The Spencers
24 February 2012 @Mayo Performing Arts Center,  Morristown, NJ

My god, they hauled all these props for a single night’s performance? These guys are

Magic Magazine. March 2011. Vol 20, No 7.

Magic Magazine. March 2011. Vol 20, No 7.

troupers. Let them be known as The Willard’s of our generation.

The Spencers opened, in front of a custom backdrop (which we would get to know well throughout the course of the evening) with Steinmeyer’s Modern Art. Though only in a regional community theater, it was a very large theater and the slim box seemed dwarfed by the size of the stage. I thought “Could they pull this off?”

The curtain closed and Kevin Spencer came out in front and spoke for the first time. I was relieved to find his manner relaxed and calm. He is in fact quite likeable, even to this sophisticated near-broadway crowd. He performed Gene Anderson’s Torn and Restored Newspaper with our local paper – a nice touch. The jokes weren’t stock, and cleverly toyed with the idea of struggling newspapers. We were beginning to like this guy…

Next up was some audience interaction – rings penetrating an audience member’s arm. I had a non-magician friend with me and he found the method utterly transparent. Indeed, it seemed a large box to travel with for such a small effect.

Next up, Walking Through a Brick Wall. I hadn’t seen this illusion before (could it be that the Spencer’s have a Steinmeyer exclusive?) and it was the highlight of the show – for me. It is a complete fooler. However, strangely, it received very little reaction from the audience. Either they were in stunned silence, or didn’t appreciate the effect. The routine requires careful pacing, which they gave it.  I’ll be honest – I’m not sure what fell flat here.  It could be that the sucker by-play in an early phase looked just a little too much like the real-deal.  Against the enormous stage, the penetration may have looked too two-dimensional; thus the assumption that he went behind the wall just too great for audience’s to dismiss.  Or maybe their were simply too many youngsters in the audience to appreciate this more cerebral illusion.

The second half opened with a Cube-Zag.  I don’t understand this illusion.  Is it a penetration?  A cutting in half? Are we to think she has disappeared? And yet – the audience reaction was tremendous!  Well beyond what I would have expected.  Perhaps it was a result of the intermission.  Perhaps it was that Mrs. Spencer had a few extra pounds (when compared to the smaller assistants).  Or maybe I’ve simply underestimated the impact of this illusion…

Mental Epic was next.  Another successful opportunity to establish a rapport with the audience as he predicted their selections.  He really sold the prediction of the items in advance.  My only complaint – there seemed to be no “theme” tying the various items he asked them to predict/select.

Next, I was surprised by an old chestnut: the Gozinta Box.  It went over well with his Pom-Pom-Pole-like-Patter.  This routine definitely works for him.

The curtains open again while Kevin tells the story of how he began in magic.  Though certainly sounding schmaltzy here, he really breaks through here by performing a routine he claims is his first in magic (with a Botania?  Yeah, right… ).  He follows logically with a “Where do the feet go?” illusion built around a cardboard box.  It makes sense, and he adds a bit of vulnerability by sharing what is ostensibly a routine from his youth.  This logically follows with a Multiplying bottle routine.  Kevin improves what I think is a fairly transparent trick (in general) by adding a couple of foolers with a silk into the mix, but overall it’s not enough to overcome the trick’s weakness.

Then, he takes a final breather with a “now-move-three-times” type mental illusion in which every audience member gets to choose one of nine cities to “visit”.  The showed played outside of New York City, which was one of the choices.  Oddly, no departure from his script was made when that city was removed from the mix and the light was switched off.  Considering the customization of the newspaper routine earlier in the show – I expected better.

Another quick interlude with an off-the-shelf Pom-Pom Pole, with the off-the-shelf patter to match.  If the write up sounds similar to the Gozinta Box description – that’s because it was.

Finally, he ends by filling the stage with Steinmeyer’s Windshear.   This was my first time seeing it live.  One thing I hadn’t appreciated having seen it on TV so many times was the impact of having an actual spinning fan pointed at you.  It really does bring in an additional sense into the mix; besides seeing and hearing the fan revolve, one feels it as well.  An exhilarating, and action packed illusion. It pumped the audience back up for the exit, and of course is very deceptive.  It quite simply, was the right trick with which to end the show.

Better start loading it up for the next town…

Review: The Elephant Room

The Elephant Room

April 5, 2012 @ St. Anne’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, New York

Starring Dennis Diamond, Louie Magic, and Daryl Hannah (Steve Cuiffo, Trey Lyford, and Geoff Sobelle); Directed by Paul Lazar

The Elephant RoomNot having a clue what to expect, I found a large warehouse in DUMBO, Brooklyn filled with local hipsters – and settled in for a magic show. A few YouTube clips of awkward moments with local TV news anchors and briefly vague NY Times and NY Post theater reviews were all I had to go on. And that advertising poster – it rivals Franz Harary’s legendary “Magic Rocks” – they were trying to be funny, right? They had to be…

And so my expectations were low, when I sat back to watch what turned out to be the best magic show I have seen in years.

Picture three guys in the late 70s sitting on a couch in their basement pretending to be the greatest magicians on the planet. Wayne’s World meets the Society of American Magicians Assembly 181. Napoleon Dynamite meets Penn & Teller. Three goof balls taking “their art” so seriously with all the shtick and hand waves that have become shorthand for “cheesy magician”. They break spontaneously (and regularly) into choreographed routines.

You watch as they monologue their dreams of stardom, their hopes and fears, then watch as they manifest these dreams into cheesy magic routines.

Their dreams are surprisingly similar, I suspect, to those of aspirant magicians. Which should scare us terribly. We magicians will see ourselves in these characters, as the muggle audience around you howls with laughter. Laughter AT them, not with them.

Yet they get the final laugh by fooling the pants off the audience. Again and again.

If magicians know any the three performers, it would be Steve Cuiffo and it would be from the frontispiece of every Gibeciére issue – in which his name is listed as board member of the a Conjuring Arts Research Center. And that should give you a clue as to how studied and calculated this show must have been planned.

It begins with the unexpected suspension of one of the three performers in air.  Followed by a three-shell routine using a Stodare egg like you’ve never seen it before, which segues into an omelette-baking routine in which every component is produced via body loads. Picture a production of a block of cheese, followed by “magical grating” in the hands.

This in turn flows into an extended milk routine with a mirror glass, milk in boot, and milk to lightbulb that all (amazingly, in retrospect) segues from piece to piece, oozing with schmaltz the whole time.

A sands of the desert routine in which the sand is replaced by Kool-aid, the punch bowl becoming clear as the Kool-aid mix is pulled out dry. I suspect this hook is their own invention – it’s a brilliant touch which adds relevance and clarity to the effect. Oh and they get to dance a Jonestown-inspired Kool-aid jive, to boot.

As a near throw-away they recreate a Buster Keaton scene from Sherlock, Jr. that has always been a personal favorite of mine. No visible large illusions, frames, or props – just two people standing on stage in a carefully choreographed dance, just as Buster did with the camera 88 years ago.

And yet all of these disparate scenes, amazingly, make perfect sense in the context of the storyline they have created for these 3 characters.

I recall Penn and Teller once claimed in an interview that Teller had to remain silent, theatrically, in order for folks to know where to look; it was too confusing if they both spoke. If there is one complaint in this production it is this – there is sometimes too much going on. Too many folks talking, performing, moving on stage at once. While it’s possible to stage a circus in the theater, it’s not effective to look like one. If you are looking for “clear cut cameos” you will not find it here.

But it does work. And just when you finally grasp that these goofballs are not to be underestimated, that you will no longer fall prey to their misdirection and let your guard down…they produce a g@# d&%*^d elephant for their namesake room out of nowhere. As a magician I should have sensed the fingerprint and have seen it coming. But I didn’t.

Damn these guys are good.

Prey they perform again elsewhere in a theater near you.

Review: Steve Cohen’s Theater of Wonder

Steve Cohen’s Theater of Wonder
Jan 12, 2012 @ Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall
Written by Steve Cohen and Mark Levy; Directed by Mark Levy

A recent MUM article on Steve Cohen outlined the particulars of the Carnegie Hall venue: lack of backstage storage space, inability to hang things from the walls, no animals, no liquids, and union performers. So it was with great interest on Thursday night that I made my first visit to Weill Recital Hall, a 268 person theater and host for one-night-only of Mr. Cohen’s one-man show.  How would he make the transition from a 30-person show at the famed Walldorf Astoria to this larger venue; from a parlor 3 rows deep at the Walldorf to a hall 15 rows deep, with another 5 in an inaccessible balcony?  Would he introduce assistants or larger props to focus the attention of the audience for 1.5 hours on this larger stage?

This is, after all, Carnegie Hall. Could you imagine another venue more suitable for Steve Cohen – the millionaire’s magician?  Without a doubt, he understands his image.

Before entering, guests were asked to write their favorite drink on a piece of paper.  It was a clue that his think-a-drink routine would soon appear, despite earlier reports of a ban on liquids. Each guest also received a sealed red envelope. Both were signs that his involvement of spectators, the backbone of his Waldorf Astoria act, wouldn’t be diminished by the increased audience size.  Indeed, before the night had handed, I would wager 45 spectators had an opportunity to participate directly in the show. With a nod to the Recital Hall’s traditional function, guests then walked in to a 3-piece string ensemble performing, until Mr. Cohen entered and took his bow.

The show was, in fact, his current parlor show writ large(r).. I’ve always been baffled at how Vernon or McBride could appear on the stage of Radio City Music Hall without appearing like a flea on the back of the back of an elephant.  Charles Morritt was known to perform a trick with coins and coin purses.  Imagine the courage it must haven taken Morritt to stand upon the largest stages of his time, and introduce a trick by displaying four coins.  Mr. Cohen does him one better; he performs a 5 minute routine with a single quarter.  Yes – you read that right – a trick with a single quarter and the simplest of secrets, to sustain the attention of hundreds.  Stage be damned.

Completion of an in-the-hands effect performed with all audience members

Trouble is – it doesn’t quite work (yet).

And so we run into a few of the difficulties of the show.  Mr. Cohen is not (yet) a Storyteller. He is enthusiastic, charismatic, gracious and charming, to wit.  These are the characteristics that appeal to his chosen clientele of the wealthy. But while we could listen to Ricky Jay spin a yarn of gambling history for 15 minutes before he even picks up the pack, Mr. Cohen does not (yet) have this capacity. And so this incredibly intriguing premise of his – a spectator becoming the time-travelling inspiration for H G Wells’ creation of The Time Machine – falls flat.

Which isn’t to say he can’t hold the audiences attention – he can and did.  But he receives this attention through force of patter, the relentless onslaught of enthusiasm which defines his persona, and the knowledge that you may be picked next to participate!  I left the hour and a half show exhausted from the focus it required. Mr. Cohen must have collapsed.  But a breath – “room to breathe” as they say – for both Mr. Cohen and his audience would have been a welcome relief. Not performing a silent sequence to music – taking advantage of that 3-piece string ensemble present throughout – seems a missed opportunity.  Such a piece, placed just prior to the final routine or two would have put the finale into sharp relief – a pause before the crescendo. Again – room to breathe. If the script for the show was cut in half and a few tricks removed, the audience might have appreciated his efforts even more.

Before we leave the Time Traveller sequence, one additional comment.   The reason Morritt and Cohen can pull off a close-up trick on a full stage, is that the selected audience member serves as a proxy to the audience of the miracles taking place.  While the audience can’t see the quarter, they can see the audience member’s expressions and reaction to the events unfolding.  The true secret to such a performance is not the gimmick, but in the selection of an expressive audience member.  Yet there is a problem in Steve’s construction of this trick.  For the audience member on stage is selected randomly by yet another audience member. This may be necessary to ensure the “randomization” for the prediction payoff, but that payoff is 30 seconds in a routine of 5 minutes. And so he will always run the risk of what happened Thursday night – where a terrified woman, who barely spoke English, serves awkwardly as a proxy for us all. Mostly we wanted her to be allowed to return to her seat.  A “have we ever met before” to a hand-selected audience member might have been the safer choice.

Speaking of the audience, it was a strange mix of wealthy (his usual clientel) and…well…children. Children of the wealthy?  Perhaps, but children nonetheless.  Many were of the busy-flourishing-in-the-lobby type.  I suspect they are an unusual sight at his parlor shows.  In the anonymity of a larger crowd, parents must have felt a bit more comfortable extending the invitation to their interested children.  Which isn’t a problem per-se. However it will be interesting to see how Mr. Cohen retains his “Millionaire’s Magician” persona and the exclusive image of his show if he chooses to pursue more of such events with larger audience sizes.

One can forgive all of this – it was after all, but a single night’s performance.  The uniqueness of the event, the distinction of the venue, the presence of so many family and friends, must have weighed heavily.  And with that nervousness the speed of his delivery increased.  It happens to all but the most practiced of performers.  The fear of taking so much time going to and from the audience members, usually just a step away, could not have helped.  And who can be so practiced for a single one-time event?

For all these distractions, Mr. Cohen remains among my favorite performers to watch.  Let’s be clear.  In the end, there are but a dozen magicians in the world who could have pulled off an event as well as he did. His classical style, his technical prowess, and his clear love of performing place him among at the top of my lists. He could have chosen to take it easy, perform a self-working trick or two – but he did not. As with his Letterman performance, he chose the difficult routines. In one routine, he appears to be peeking a spectator’s selection, while simultaneously finding and controlling another named card to the face of a previously shuffled deck.  He does this four times consecutively without missing a beat.  He used two pulls, separated across 3 tricks without ever stepping offstage (remember, there was no curtain). There is no question that he has “chops” of the highest order. And disguised so well by his charm.

But his foremost quality is in his treatment of the audience. Ricky Jay doesn’t care what you think of him. You get the sense he would perform identically if an audience wasn’t even present in the theater.  David Copperfield is kind to you because he needs to be.  But one walks away from a Steve Cohen show knowing he is genuinely interested in forging a link with his audience.  He treats every single member of his audience with utmost respect kindness. It’s the reason I suspect the rich flock to him, and the reason he is my recommendation to any New Yorker who asks what to go see.

So what was performed? The sequences were largely his parlor act restaged. Tommy Wonder’s “The Ring, The Watch, and the Wallet” (AKA Hold-up) opener.  Card tricks. The Ring in Walnut (in egg, in orange) sequence we saw him present flawlessly on Letterman. Linking Finger Rings.  Pulse stopping.  “Lip reading” – another card sequence. The Rising Cards.  Q&A/Mindreading routine. Finally, an in-the-hands effect using cards from the red envelope folks received at the start.  And probably 10 others I’ve already forgotten.  A few highlights:

Any Drink Called For.  His now-signature “think-a-drink”  Tea Kettle routine.  Such an unlikely star. It’s source: a forgotten chestnut from the pages of Robert-Houdin’s Memoires and Hoffman’s Modern Magic. Indeed, Devant Devant laid bare his teakettle secret in clinical detail in Secrets of My Magic (p. 119) – a method I suspect is surprisingly similar to the one used by Mr. Cohen today.(Interested readers should seek out “From Keg To Kettle” By Jay Palmer in Sphinx Vol. 50, #6/Dec 1951, p.231 for one history of the effect.)

As Jim Steinmeyer writes in Conjuring Anthology (P. 326):

It’s a trick so truly old that it’s new again.  It was so old by 1905 that David Devant reintroduced it to a new generation.  He performed it with a teakettle, instead of a bottle, and capitalized on the Magic Kettle-Liquid Nitrogen demonstrations that were then the rage in music halls. Robert-Houdin, Robin, Anderson, Levante, Charles Hoffmann, and Kalanag also performed versions of the “any-drink-called-for” act.

As it gets older, it gets better. More of a novelty, more of a mystery.

Steinmeyer first wrote that in August 1999 Magic Magazine, but no one until Mr. Cohen listened (he says on his blog he began performing the routine in 2001). Since then, Mr. Cohen has truly made the kettle his own – and it’s a shocker for laymen.  Gone are concoctions prepared with essences and bitters in the glass – Mr. Cohen pours frappacino’s, smoothies, tea (hot or cold!), and mixed drinks for our Starbucks generation.  I am shocked Owen Magic hasn’t advertised a teakettle at $899 each to fulfill the coming legions of copycats…

The Rising Cards.  When I saw the parlor act years back, the rising cards was not in the show.  What a treat.  And destined to be another Cohen signature item.  In this case he takes the familiar – among the commonest card tricks and presents it so cleanly, so clearly, so effortlessly. He has boiled it down to the essence of the trick.  Isolated on upturned glasses, sealed with a tumbler, and ultimately covered in a bell jar, the cards not just rise but follow his command.  He seems to use the Hooker Card Rise as the reference design without all the confusion of that floating bear head Miltiades…His ghost patter line, the monocle, and (especially) the not-quite-blue-but-definitely-awkward-with-kids-around joke of “tickling” the ghost could all go. That aside, the clean handling of the trick is phenomenal and unlikely to be topped by others.

The Q&A Routine.  I once read with curiosity of the Question & Answer act of “Alexander, The Man Who Knows” (Claude Conlin).  I just couldn’t understand how he managed to make an entire show out of answering questions written down earlier by audience members. All those complex billet readers and prompters in The Life and Mysteries of the Celebrated Dr. “Q”. I just didn’t get what the big deal was. Didn’t folks see through what he was up to?  If it is supposed to be mindreading, why write the questions down? Did they really believe the performer was reading their mind – or just reading their billet from afar?  I still don’t know the answers to those questions, but I don’t ask them anymore now that I have seen the response it received from Steve Cohen.

The finale.  Throughout the evening, Mr. Cohen introduced the audience to various relevant Japanese words.  He received gasps, not from a trick, but from his clear prowess in Japanese calligraphy written on large easels in the back of the stage.  Incorporating this truly unique skill of Mr. Cohen into the storyline of the show was one of the smartest touches of the night.  The ending used these words in a unique way, one that holds real promise as a finale. However I’m not sure whether the method fell flat or there was an error in this performance– but a “secret” was obvious to us all where there should have been nothing at all. It was such a charming conclusion to such an enjoyable evening, however, that we all blinked and forgave.

I suspect we’ll be seeing more of this show at exclusive venues throughout the US in months to come.  Well done, Steve.

Teller & Robbins’ Play Dead

Playbill from Play DeadI attended a performance of Teller and Todd Robbins’ Play Dead recently. Lightbulb eating, a disappearing spectator, lights-out spook show displays, a full light seance with Oija board and table tilting (which I participated in on-stage), mentalism and thought reading – there is plenty in the way of magic in this fantastic show.  My recitation of these magical inclusions, however, misses the point of the show, as the tricks are carefully woven into the fabric of the play; No audience member would leave thinking they had attended a magic show.

Teller & Robbins have successfully resucitated the midnight spook show. The practitioners of which are fully covered in

  • WALKER, Mark. Ghostmasters.  N.p: Cool Hand Publications. 1991. 176 pp. Cover | Full Title
Illustrationss from Tarbell

Illustrations from pp 380-382 of TARBELL, Harlan. The Tarbell Course in Magic, Volume II

Instructions on many of the lights-out effect can be found in

  • TARBELL, Harlan. The Tarbell Course in Magic, Volume II.  Brooklyn: D. Robbins & Co., Inc. 1927, 1975. Seventh Printing. Cover | Full Title

That said – again – the show isn’t about the magic effects. But I want to single out a single trick: Germain’s Flower growth.  Ken Klosterman owns the original Germain Flower Growth apparatus.  It is reproduced on pages 210-213 of:

  • KLOSTERMAN, Ken, with FUJARI, Gabe. Salon de Magie. Loveland: Klosterman. 2006. 381 pp, with DVD. Cover | Full Title

You won’t recognize it in it’s current form in Play Dead, however – but the Flower Growth is there.  Disguised as an innocent table  and moved carelessly into place by Robbins (just as Germain did 100 years ago), his haphazard actions bely the precise placement which undoubtedly must occur for the illusion to be a success. A brief blackout – in keeping with midnight spook show theme…Robbin’s draws focus on a bucket of ashes as the focal point in his retelling of a touching personal story…and then…you catch a brief, fleeting glimpse of…

Well, that would be spoiling it.

Klosterman writes, “[W]hen Teller saw the effect performed at the Salon, he was so emotionally moved that I just had to give him the parlor-size version.”

The definitive work on the Germain Flower Growth hides in

  • CRAMER, Stuart and KARR, Todd, ed. Germain the Wizard.  Seattle: The Miracle Factory. 2002. 624 pp. Cover | Full Title
Germain's Flower Growth

Germain's Flower Growth from p. 212 - KLOSTERMAN, Ken, with FUJARI, Gabe. Salon de Magie.

Chapter 5 shows us the development of Germain’s Flower Growth over time.   However the real gem is the final chapter “Looking-Glass Wizard”, by Teller.  It tells of his childhood “meeting” with Germain by way of his reading of The Secrets of Karl Germain and Germain the Wizard an his Legerdemain (both reprinted in the Karr book) in the public library:

I embraced Germain utterly.  I embraced his aggressive love of things poetic. I embraced his passion for visual magic and his disdain for box tricks. I modeled my sense of scale on his, and aspired to stage magic that would not dwarf the human performer.

Germain never wrote a textbook on theory. Then again, neither did Bach or Shakespeare. Great artists often leave us models rather than instructions. And I’d much rather study these models than formulas deduced by scholars and codified by textbooks. Models show us method and technique in the context of beauty they serve. Models do not oversimplify, nor do they give us the impression that creating art is merely filling in the spaces in a paint-by-numbers pattern.

Germain’s Flower Growth is a perfect model.

Indeed it is.

A Phoenix from the Ashes, both literally and figuratively, Germain lives on again as model in fresh clothing in Play Dead.  Thank you, Teller, for a wonderful lesson in magic.  I felt much of what you must have felt those many years ago in Klosterman’s museum.