By BRUCE DENNILL
The Illusionists: Direct From Broadway / Directed by Hollie England / Teatro, Montecasino, Fourways, Johannesburg 7.5
Much of the time spent watching an illusionist usually involves doing your best to figure out how the performer is doing his or her trick. The Illusionists: Direct From Broadway, an ensemble show featuring eight experts in various disciplines, is different in that it’s presented as a collective extravaganza, with formidable production values that make it a big, brash entertainment juggernaut rather than a focused showcase of a specific skill.
This is not to say that the individual magicians don’t have ample opportunity to astonish and dumbfound onlookers – they do, and by and large they do a faultless job – but the show works, and will appeal to a very wide range of audiences, because of its slickness, pace and the diverse elements that are combined onstage.
The range of specialities on show already offers something for fans of most sorts of magic and introductions to a couple of new fields. The performers’ self-explanatory titles tell much of the story – The Trickster, The Manipulator, The Showman, The Conjuress, The Mentalist, The Grand Illusionist, The Escapologist and The Weapons Master – but many of them add aspects of their own personalities that complement their onstage characters and give their slots extra kick.
Foremost in this regard – and somewhat unexpectedly, given that the marketing suggests that he is the least imposing of the the performers – is Chris Cox, aka The Mentalist. He’s a thin, bespectacled gent, and other than a Tintin-esque tuft of hair and a penchant for tartan trousers, he doesn’t seem to have any of the gimmicks (elaborate costumes, flames, dancing girls) that his colleagues include in their acts. But Cox is a whirlwind of energy and, most importantly, lightning-quick improvised humour that makes him a hoot to watch even before he does any of what he’s a whiz at – apparently reading people’s minds. Cox appears in both halves of the show, with his first set a one-on-one encounter with a volunteer where, impressively enough, he is able to deduce details about his bewildered guest that should be impossible for him to know. His achievements after the interval are considerably more gobsmacking though, when he first reveals facets of random audience members based on touching brief questionnaires they’ve filled in, sealed in thick envelopes and placed in a container onstage. The brow-furrowing goes a step further when someone Cox is addressing touches someone next to them, and he instantly names that person and states facts about them that he cannot possible have been informed about in any conventional sense. It’s an astounding skill, effortlessly implemented.
David Williamson, aka The Trickster, is another highlight, acting as the evening’s MC as well as presenting his own segments. Williamson has the charm and swagger of an old-fashioned vaudevillian, able to smoothly transition from one proficiency to another and to adapt seamlessly depending on what happens at each moment. Williamson was tested on opening night during a segment with four charming children when the youngest of them, a precocious four-year-old, stole the limelight from his seasoned host, with the tot’s showmanship and the trickster’s responses to them making for prolonged belly-laughs from the audience.
Mark Kalin (The Showman) and Jinger Leigh (The Conjuress) are an effective double-act, presenting what most of the crowd probably considered the most traditional magic – cutting someone in half, making someone disappear from a closed container and so on. Both are accessible, charismatic personalities, able to amuse and to keep volunteers at ease.
Less loquacious but possessed of a talent that doesn’t require verbal embellishment, Japanese sleight-of-hand artist Den Den (aka The Manipulator) does mysteriously elegant thing with coloured paper; a master technician who doesn’t need many frills to make an impact.
There are few breaks in the momentum of the overall piece, which makes the rare blips that do occur all the more frustrating for disturbing the glossy momentum – an unclosed hatch in a black curtain as a magician materialises on a table; the suggestion of a wire as a floating globe vanishes toward the rear of the stage; the ever-so-slight mistiming of a reveal as a huge object that wasn’t there suddenly is …
This is a treat for anyone who likes a thrill and a complex challenge for the devoted cynic.