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Howard Sherman: Should we be amazed by the return of magic to the stage?

Derek DelGaudio in In and of Itself. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman is a New York based arts administrator and advocate. He is director of the Arts Integrity Initiative at The New School for Performing Arts.
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When people talk about how theatre isn’t really the same thing when it is translated on to television or film, they could also be talking about magic. This isn’t meant metaphorically, but rather literally – magic of the I-have-nothing-up-my-sleeves, pick-a-card variety, as well as its most elaborate iterations.

The problem for magic on screen is that we can never be sure of what’s not in the frame and, if it’s been shot in advance, what may have been achieved in post-production. When films such as Now You See Me, The Prestige and The Illusionist trafficked in magic, I had to wonder whether anyone had actually learned tricks at all, or if everything was achieved digitally.

When I saw the new Off-Broadway show In and of Itself recently, I went with only the vaguest sense of what it was (I had a free night and what little I’d read seemed intriguing). While it adopts a philosophical guise of reflecting on one’s self and identity, in combination with Derek DelGaudio’s recollections of his own biography, the piece is at its core a conveyor of time-honoured illusions and skill, including card manipulation, mentalism and one stunning bit that I don’t think I’ll ever figure out.

Magic has slowly been making its way back into theatres, though it’s not always quite as centre stage as it is in a show such as The Illusionists, which has come to Broadway for the holidays three years running. It seems more Vegas spectacle – or vintage magic show – than theatre.

In and of Itself is actually DelGaudio’s second intimate theatrical piece (I now regret missing his Nothing to Hide) and its existential musings seem right for its small venue, echoing one of the first shows of this kind that I saw, the mesmerising Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, more than 20 years ago.

The way had been paved for Jay by Penn and Teller, who burst out of small theatres in Los Angeles and New York in the mid-1980s to become headliners. Though when I last saw them, on Broadway, they were still impressing crowds with feats from that very first show, including Penn Jillette’s entrancing dissertation on the skills and dangers of fire-eating. Teller has also developed a side business in creating illusions for Shakespeare, co-directing productions of Macbeth and The Tempest in regional theatres.

Derren Brown. Photo: Seamus Ryan

Tonight, previews begin for Derren Brown: Secret at the Atlantic Theater Company. This is the US debut of the UK mentalist, so we’ll have both Brown and DelGaudio plying their trade at the same time in Manhattan. While the DelGaudio show is in a commercial venue, Brown is at an institutional company, one known for introducing new works to the stage or to the US – that is to say, one not given over simply to entertainments.

Meanwhile, outside New York, a full narrative about a magician, The Magic Play by Andrew Hinderaker, is on tour through several US regional companies as part of a rolling world premiere (currently at Maryland’s Olney Theatre Center), with Brett Schneider playing a magician and executing the tricks. And several years back, Steve Cuiffo, Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle united for the irreverent Elephant Room, another magic-based entertainment.

Magic is afoot on Broadway as well, most notably in the just-opened Groundhog Day, which repeatedly treats the audience to Andy Karl stepping out of sight in one corner of the stage, only to reappear instantly under the covers of a bed center stage, to start February 2 all over yet again.

For years, Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was capped by the Beast’s mid-air transformation back into the Prince, and now Disney has audiences of all ages wondering how Aladdin’s magic carpet manages to fly. The West End is already enjoying the reportedly significant theatrical magic deployed by Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (this muggle has yet to learn its secrets) and Broadway will have them as well in just under a year’s time.

Brett Schneider in The Magic Play. Photo: Stan Barouh

This is not meant to be a litany of recent stage magic, and undoubtedly some examples have been missed. Rather it prompts the question as to why magic has been relatively absent from the theatrical stage for so long. Until recently, it was primarily the stuff of television and Las Vegas spectaculars, in the hands of people such as David Coppperfield and David Blaine.

Perhaps from the time Eugene O’Neill began making his mark, American theatre headed away from illusion and towards realism so fully, abetted by the development of method acting, that truth superseded trickery, psychology overtook psychics.

Thirty-two years ago, Penn and Teller derided traditional magicians as greasy-haired hucksters and made their mark by purporting to banish such trappings – while substituting shock and sarcasm along with their new-wave conjuring. Now their successors are bringing drama and magic together in new ways still being explored, in an alliance that may well be bringing wonder back to the theatre not simply for show, but fully integrated into narrative stories.

I’ve read a great deal about magic and how some of it is engineered, so I may not always be fooled. But I can still be amazed, and that’s an emotion theatre should never think it can do without.

This week in US theatre

With the qualifying deadline for the Tony Awards set for April 27, it’s a very busy week on Broadway.

April 23 sees the US debut of the musical of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, reportedly extensively reworked from the UK production under the direction of Jack O’Brien. April 24 brings the animated film Anastasia to the stage courtesy of the authors of Ragtime, Terrence McNally, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, the latter two having expanded upon the score they wrote for the film.

April 25 marks the return of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, with Allison Janney in the lading role of Ouisa under Trip Cullman’s direction. That rarest of birds, a completely original musical, debuts on April 26: Bandstand, written by Robert Taylor and Richard Oberacker and directed and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler, choreographer of Hamilton. And April 27 ends the season with Laurie Metcalf and Chris Cooper in Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2, directed by Sam Gold, which brings Nora Helmer back to the door she slammed 15 years earlier.

Off-Broadway, The Antipodes by Annie Baker, author of The Flick, makes its world premiere on April 23 at Signature Theatre, which also produced her last play, the mysterious and compelling John. Described solely as “a play about people telling stories about telling stories”, it is directed by Lila Neugebauer and the nine-member cast includes Josh Charles and Josh Hamilton.

In Chicago, A Red Orchid Theatre is mounting the first major production of David Adjmi’s 3C since the show was precluded from production by a copyright infringement lawsuit mounted by the rights holders to the sitcom Three’s Company. Adjmi’s dark parody of that comedy, vindicated in court and freed from restrictions, deserves to be looked at afresh, after the lawsuit derailed interest and momentum generated by the play’s premiere and sole production back in 2012.

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