5 Stars

THE VANISHING MAN & THE EXTINCTION EVENT

“A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.” So say Jean Robert- Houdin, the 19th century French conjurer considered the father of modern magic.  And so be David Aula and Simon Evans. Their two, interconnected shows, The Vanishing Man and The Extinction Event, are billed as theatre but are filled to the brim with magic, and it’s impossible to tell what’s the most amazing part. It’s very, very hard to weave magic tricks into a compelling, coherent story, or at least is must be because it’s very, very rare to see it done well. This is one of those rare times. Both The Vanishing Man and The Extinction Event would be excellent examples of great theatre even without the magic, even on just the strength of their stories, but the physical element of illusions puts them onto a whole new level.

These shows, which are better reviewed together rather than apart, are also better viewed together rather than apart. Although they can technically both stand alone, the emotional impact of the second one, the Extinction Event, is much stronger for seeing the former. The pertinent background is shared at the beginning just in case you haven’t seen them both, but that information packs so much more of a punch when learned over the course of a show than in a quick sentence of catch up. In The Vanishing Man, a magician and his friend take us through the mysterious case of the fictional Edwardian magician Hugo Cedar, and his greatest and most terrible trick- vanishing without a trace (or much of a trace) off London Bridge. This long dead magician and his story have an immense effect on the two magicians, and like any magic show, not all is as it seems. In The Extinction Event, these same men dip into the impact of machines on our lives, the implications of them for magic, and the possibilities of hypnosis. All done with such astoundingly intelligent storytelling and incredible heart, it may actually make you cry.

Almost as notable as the stories themselves is the unique way Aula and Evans have of engaging their audience in interacting with the shows. The instructions are almost impossibly efficient and effective, and make every single member of the audience invested in the performance and leave no one feeling embarrassed or really singled out.  Not counting the audience, these are two man shows, and Aula and Evans also excel in their chemistry with each other. Their pacing is flawless, their relationships relatable, and their performances a perfect match.

The Vanishing Man and The Extinction Event are the cleverest shows at the Edinburgh Fringe twice over, and are as beautiful and entertaining as they are smart. To put it in no uncertain terms, they are absolutely unmissable.

 

The Vanishing Man can be found at Pleasance Courtyard (Venue 33) during the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe at 14:10 from August 16-27

The Extinction Event can be found at the same place and dates at 15:40

More information on The Vanishing Man and The Extinction Event and their performance dates can be found here

CHRIS COOK: CHANCE

Chris Cook mentions in his show that this is his fifth year at the Fringe. Chance is undeniable proof that he’s not only not lost his charm, but is only getting better with experience. Cook is the model of a modern magician in his open affect and obvious affability. Not a magician here to trick you- well, yes, here to trick you, but not to taunt you with it. It’s clear that Cook sees his attendees not just as people for him to fool but as people to invite to an opportunity of wonder, to imagine a life with less repetitive drudgery and more delight.

It’s apparent immediately that Cook puts his volunteers at ease, an impressive feat when pulling them out of the safety and anonymity of the audience to stand on stage in front of everyone and do something they haven’t prepared for. But he instructs well, doesn’t mock, and is quick to make himself the butt of any joke before subjecting his volunteers to it. This has the secondary effect of endearing the rest of the audience to him (because who knows who could be next?) and, combined with his honest humor and breathless exuberance, creates a great atmosphere for the show.

Cook doesn’t shy away from anything that would make his magic relatable to his audience, and in Chance this involves political content. Implying a political stance in a magic show at the Fringe can be risky- your audience probably didn’t come expecting it the way they could for theatre or comedy, and it’s unlikely that at least some of them don’t strongly disagree with you. Due to a slight but noticeable muting of the audience’s good cheer surrounding his political content, it’s possible that this choice is occasionally having a real effect on Cook’s show. But a magician is not a vehicle for illusions, they should have principles and ultimately this political engagement is a daring and admirable choice. Cook proves that magic doesn’t have to be a frozen moment of late 19th/ early 20th century “golden age” that so many magicians like to hearken back to and romanticize, but instead can thrive as a sharp, to the point engagement with politics and his audience’s anxieties. Never faltering or losing a beat of his abounding charisma, Cook can dip into places more vulnerable, more uncertain, more real- and takes his audience with him.

Cook illustrates in Chance the breadth of possibilities of magic; the stories and situations and emotions that can engage with it. His magic enlivens his audience and makes them receptive to his finale- his encouragement and inspiration to breathe, to let their defenses fall, and to remember their basic human connection. Chance is not only a fantastic magic show to experience Cook’s impressive skills and great humor, but a reflection on our unbreakable capacity for wonder and hope, despite it all.

 

Chris Cook can be found at the Voodoo Rooms (Venue 68) during the 2018 Edinburgh Fringe at 15:10 from August 16-26

More information on Chris Cook and his performance dates can be found here

 

 

VINCENT GAMBINI – THE CHORE OF ENCHANTMENT

☆☆☆☆☆

Vincent Gambini’s meta-show about magic, The Chore of Enchantment, encapsulates the pessimism of 2016.  It is especially fantastic for those who still haven’t quite gotten over the ridiculous politics of that year.  Most of The Chore of Enchantment is less magic and more Gambini’s stand-up comedy style routine about his disillusionment with both magic and the real world, with bits and pieces of tricks used to enhance his monologue and illustrate his descent into melancholy.

Gambini creates a sense of unease from the start as he steps on to the stage in a sleep mask, and describes the room, the audience, and himself as figments of his dream.  While the big illusions that he describes do not manifest—no floating yoda or hole in the fabric of reality appear on the stage—the card tricks that do are still enjoyable, and create a bridge between Gambini’s mind and reality.

Equally atmospheric are the smaller bits of magic that Gambini performs as he gets into the politics of his show.  Gambini makes coins and balls disappear and reappear as he talks about the repetitiveness of performing magic, and brings magic back to the forefront of the narrative when he makes a staff appear with a loud snap.  He does occasionally run the gag for a little bit too long, but this feels like part of the show, as it periodically transitions the audience from awe to near-apathy with each new effect.

Gambini’s interactions with his audience are charming.  He does not use a lot of participants, due to the relative scarcity of magic in his show, but he reacts remarkably well to their mistakes and interruptions, seamlessly working them in to his performance.

By its nature, The Chore of Enchantment does occasionally feel a little bit pretentious in its exaggerated self-consciousness.  Gambini pokes fun at his past career in conventional magic as inadequate given the current state of the world, while performing what is, at its heart, a magic show in his own attempt to come to terms with those real issues.  In spite of its stated conclusions that magic is simply another distraction, the effectiveness of The Chore of Enchantment is evidence in support of magic’s usefulness as a tool for performers to address real world issues.

In The Chore of Enchantment, Gambini balances entertaining his audience with inspiring them to think, both about the real world and the nature of entertainment.  His comedy still feels timely two years after the events that he discusses, and his minimalist magic augments his words and astonishes his audience.

 

More information on Vincent Gambini and his performance dates can be found here

THE CHICAGO MAGIC LOUNGE

☆☆☆☆☆

As cheesy as the phrase ‘the talk of the town’ is, the Chicago Magic Lounge has already built a notable reputation for some of the best evening entertainment in Chicago. As deserving as the magicians are for this renown, it would be near professionally negligent not to begin with the role of the Lounge itself as a contributing character to the show. What has been created here is impressive to the point of utterly remarkable. From the time you enter through a laundromat – and no more secrets will be revealed about that, you’ll have to find out for yourselves – every step within the Lounge is a perfectly curated experience with mysteries and history in every nook and cranny. One could probably visit fifty times and see something new on each of them, both in their surroundings and in the magic performed for them.

At the early evening show on April 28th 2018, the featured stage act was performer AJ Sacco. A man of flexible flair, Sacco had also been one of the wandering magicians doing close up magic for attendees during the preceding cocktail hour. Sacco’s close up easy and amiable demeanor shifts seemingly effortlessly to a cheeky onstage persona. At some points clowning around with silly and undeniably funny tricks, Sacco also has turns of magician-as-beat poet, an unexpected but compelling act.

Sacco led for the headlining stage act, Mago Gozner. Hailing from Mexico, Gozner jokes about having a poor understanding of English, but he certainty understands how to win the crowd. Radiating a kind of affable self consciousness, Gozner excels at including members of the audience in his show while making them a part of the joke, not the butt of it. To be completely straightforward, Gozner excels at every moment of his performance, executing tricks with everything from cards to Rubix cubes to toilet paper with near perfect comedic timing.

Although there are only two acts to the main event, it is extremely worthwhile to swing for the extra post-show show in the Lounge’s 654 Club. On this night performed by Justin Purcell, the half hour of magic in the 654 Club gives an opportunity for intimate close up magic. At this point in the night most of the audience has been drinking for at least two hours, and some people will have had quite a lot.  The combination of the close quarters and their own personal intoxication means that some attendees are, if not exactly unruly, vocally overexcited. The single most remarkable magic performed by Purcell is just how well he handled these people. This is not to say he isn’t an excellent conjurer, but his ability to go along with the (repetitive, unyielding, loud) exclamations shouted at him without giving them the spotlight was one of the most impressive things to see all night. Purcell also impresses with some very classic magic performed with such dexterity and charming sincerity that it is impossible not to be dumbfounded, even if you’re familiar with the concepts. Far from being just an added bonus, Purcell’s performance at the 654 Club is an integral aspect of the Chicago Magic Lounge experience.

The magic scene in Chicago may not be in it’s golden age anymore, with men in top hats sauntering around, sawing women in half (which many women are probably okay with ending), and committing trademark infringement, but the Chicago Magic Lounge seems to serve as a promise that the greatest parts of this scene will never die. Not only is this theatre a worthy successor to the magic of days gone by, but it is a vibrant and exciting reminder that truly good magic is eternal and there’s so much more to be delightfully deceived by.

 

More information on the Chicago Magic Lounge can be found here

WONDERS AT DUSK

☆☆☆☆☆

Scott Silven’s  “Wonders at Dusk” is aptly named, not just for the literal time at which it occurs but also for the thematic progression of the show itself. Silven’s opening remarks about his childhood struggle to pinpoint the moment at which dusk turns in to the proper darkness of night draft a verbal blueprint for the evening. The audience is drawn in by Silven’s autobiographical stories and gradually captivated by his mind reading powers, ultimately leaving the venue spellbound and in wonder at his skills.

This act is not entirely a magic show, but also includes elements of storytelling, as previously mentioned, and also Silven’s interesting take on mindfulness meditation. At various points in the evening, Silven encourages the audience to be present in the moment, likening time spent as his audience to a detour on the path of life. His act quickly becomes very relaxing. Unlike the vaguely threatening kind of relaxation common in hypnotism shows, in which the performer asks the audience to give up conscious control of their bodies, this is a much nicer relaxation, in which Silven simply asks that the audience soften the boundaries between their conscious and subconscious thoughts. Such a lowering of these boundaries will, says Silven, allow individuals in the audience to connect with each other in a manner conducive to their reception of his mentalist magic.

The magical elements of the show are similarly remarkable. Silven repeatedly correctly deduces information generated by the audience, always with safeguards to demonstrate the veracity of his magic. Hidden envelopes and pouches placed throughout the room prior to the audience’s arrival are proof to assure the audience that Silven predicted their responses before he had even seen the evening’s crowd. These hiding spots add an extra layer of whimsy to the evening, as Silven directs audience members on a hunt through his props, or climbs on top of furniture, to collect the evidence of his powers of prediction.

Silven’s “Wonders at Dusk” is indeed a wonderful show to experience. Its pacing and theme make for a calming end to the typically hectic day at the Fringe. At the same time, the magic is exciting to watch, with the final illusion in particular leaving the audience in amazement. We leave knowing that, just as surely as the dusk has become night, Silven’s uplifting magic has stolen over the evening and left its distinct impression on our minds.

 

More information on Scott Silven and his performance dates can be found here

CHRIS COOK: CONTROL

☆☆☆☆☆

In his show “Control”, Chris Cook speaks a lot about not feeling in control of his life, and even says that he does not have complete control over what will happen in that show. But this is only partially correct- Cook quickly captivates his audience, and easily controls their full attention for the entire hour of his set.

Cook primarily performs sleight of hand tricks, and these are reliably inventive and surprising. It is a testament to his abilities that when he made a mess of a tomato that he ate onstage and took a moment to clean his hands, one almost expected he was about to reveal a new, uneaten tomato from the wreckage. His real tricks, however, are even more impressive.

Control includes many timely political references that both ingratiate Cook with the more liberal members of the audience, and help tie his tricks in to the story line of his show. Whether it’s a quick joke about mourning the death of the European Union, or Cook taking the time to read from and criticize Donald Trump’s book before using it as a prop in his next trick, the show decidedly favours the political left. American members of the audience in particular might be especially satisfied to find that Trump’s book does not emerge unscathed from its role in the show.

While the majority of Cook’s show does focus on sleight of hand, he does veer briefly into mentalism in an unexpectedly heartwarming final segment. His more serious themes are predominantly present as an undercurrent for the rest of the show, but here they take centre stage. Cook captivates the audience with his tricks and wit, and then uses that control over his viewers to instill his message of hope and motivation.

Cook’s “Control” is an excellent show that is definitely worth watching. Cook’s magic is creatively and skillfully performed. He excels both in performing big impressive tricks, and in creating small surprisingly magical moments in between the main illusions. In the end, it is his modesty that is particularly charming. Rather than using his considerable charisma solely to control his audience for the duration of the show, he gives that control back by inspiring us to exert what control we can over our own lives.

 

More information on Chris Cook and his performance dates can be found here

BEN HART: BELIEF?

☆☆☆☆☆

Early on in his show, Ben Hart compares magic to time travel- a way of recapturing the powerful feelings of surprise and amazement that many adults feel are gradually beaten down by the passage of time. His skillful and intriguing tricks in ‘Belief?’ certainly manage to inspire such emotions.

The hour does begin with a little bit more intensity than would perhaps be expected from a magic show. In his opening sequence, Hart describes the performance of the trick of making objects disappear as a form of self-harm; he details how performing such tricks caused him to forget who and where he was, losing his identity. This may have been part of why the first word used to describe his show in the official Fringe description is “dark”. Ultimately, it made me a little bit worried about him. That intensity continues as a theme throughout, although it quickly simmers down to calmer, less concerning, levels.

Hart continuously integrates his illusions into his storytelling. He tells the audience a story—topics range from describing prejudices against a sewage worker to an explanation of Schrodinger’s cat—and then transitions seamlessly into a trick with that theme. Hart keeps the audience engaged in his stories both with his personality and with clever use of light. For one story, he sits with a bright light shining directly on him, evoking a pleasant modern campfire effect.

This storytelling aspect does result in a lower concentration of actual magical content. While his entire act as an artist is certainly appealing to an audience composed primarily of adults, it is perhaps not the best choice for children. However, Hart engaged with the one child in his audience by inviting him to take part in one of the tricks, which is a nice gesture toward guardians who may have expected a more traditional child-oriented magic performance.

Hart’s show is an interesting and absorbing way to spend an hour. His use of storytelling both to entertain and to incorporate his magic into his theme gives his act a pleasant and calming flow. ‘Belief?’ does not feel like just another magic show, but a polished performance piece. Both the cohesiveness of theme and the pervasiveness of Hart’s personal style set this show apart and make it both enjoyable and worthwhile to watch.

 

 

More information on Ben Hart and his performance dates can be found here