Theatre Review: The Illusionists

By: Mandy J Watson
Posted: 9 February 2018
Category: Review Comments View Comments


The Illusionists, a grand spectacular featuring a cast of international magicians, illusionists, and escapologists, has opened in Cape Town at GrandWest, where it will complete a run of seven shows before moving to Johannesburg, to the Teatro at Montecasino, for a month.

Theatre Review: The Illusionists

Seven international performers (plus an eighth - but I'll get to that in a moment) are in Cape Town to present The Illusionists, an arena spectacle of magic and illusion. The show tours the world with different performers who have particular specialities so you won't see the same show if you watch this in another country.

The South African presentation is a mix of sleight of hand, mentalism, grand illusion, escapology, and comedy that's a good overview, for people who have never seen a show like this before, of the different forms of entertainment that live magic can comprise. We are privileged to have a lineup visit us that comprises particularly interesting performers.

Theatre Review: The Illusionists
Above: Den Den.
Den Den from Japan, who is framed as "The Manipulator" in the show, is a sleight-of-hand artist with a signature performance that mixes origami and card manipulation. He works gracefully with a slow buildup to a final flourish that is beautiful. There are moments in this routine that still need a bit of polish but there are others in which his execution is absolutely flawless, which results in a moment of wonder and perfection. I like good manipulation routines so I really enjoyed watching how he uses sleight-of-hand techniques in his act and what he creates with the manipulations that he is able to perform.

"The Showman & The Conjuress", husband-and-wife team Mark Kalin and Jinger Leigh from the USA, present double act illusions as well as solo performances that are more intimate. They are very experienced performers who have fine-tuned their acts and the illusions are a modern take on what many people think of as old school classic stage magic with the magician and his assistant. I particularly enjoyed "Bloodless Surgery", which is their version of sawing a woman in half, because they add some extra elements, with the help of audience volunteers, that just makes it that little bit more impossible.

Similarly, Darcy Oake, "The Grand Illusionist" from Canada, performs large scale illusions as well as a close-up effects. Within one of these, which features coins and drinking glasses that are filmed up close and displayed on screen so what everyone can see the props clearly, you will see something occur that you just won't believe is happening. You may have seen some of his illusions on Britain's Got Talent but nothing compares to seeing them performed live, although they retain the fast pace that that show presumably requires and I think some of them would have benefitted from being slowed down slightly.

Theatre Review: The Illusionists
Above: Ben Blaque.
"The Weapon Master", Ben Blaque from the USA, performs increasingly impossible feats of precision and dexterity with a crossbow, culminating in a twist on the apple shot in which he puts his own life in danger. The crowd really enjoyed his routine because of the danger aspect but I wasn't particularly enamoured with it because it's not quite true weapons mastery and it's not quite magic - it sits somewhere in between. I would prefer something that really embraces being either one or the other.

Chris Cox, "The Mentalist" from the UK, combines mentalism and comedy magic in a couple of routines that will have the audience convinced that he can read people's minds. I particularly enjoyed "The Challenge", in which he recreates a fashion ensemble put together by an audience volunteer whose choices he can't see, although this was partly because I know the volunteer who ended up on stage and it was amusing to see him incorporated into the show. I think Chris' second routine, "Control Chris Cox", is the one the audience probably enjoyed more as he was able to pluck information out of people's heads and present that information in surprising ways that just blew people's minds. I thought that he revealed some of the information too quickly but the finale of the act, which differs slightly for each performance, was clever and unexpected.

One would assume that Darcy Oake is the headliner act, and the marketing seems to have positioned him as such, but David Williamson, "The Trickster" from the USA, steals the show. He is a veteran comedy-magic performer who is particularly skilled at working with children. He is amiable and very approachable and seems to like interacting with people one on one so he was out among the crowd before the show began and then, again, during the interval happily signing autographs for people. He acted as the host and one of his routines included his popular act "The Training Of Wild Animals", in which chaos multiplies on stage as he asks young volunteers help him with his act.

YouTube link
Above: Krendl talks to the media in Cape Town about the Water Torture Cell, removing the act from The Illusionists, and the physical dangers he faces when he performs the escape.
This video is also another test of the FNB ConeXis X2. You'll note that the video framing is off - this is because what is displayed on the screen is not what the camera captures. The sound is also once again tinny.
This brings us to the eighth performer: Krendl, "The Escapologist". His signature routine is "Water Torture Cell", in which he is secured with handcuffs and submerged upside down in a tank of water in full view of the audience at all times. It's an update of Harry Houdini's Chinese Water Torture Cell but unlike most escapologists, who perform the escape behind a curtain, Krendl does it in full view of the audience.

Unfortunately with the water crisis in Cape Town the show faced a quandary: include the performance and draw criticism for perceived water wastage or exclude it and disappoint fans. Consequently, it's been excluded to avoid a public-relations nightmare. It will, however be back in for the Johannesburg run and will use recycled water for those performances so I don't know why that couldn't have been organised for Cape Town as well. I think, with a little bit of careful thought, a plan could have been formulated that would have satisfied both sides.

Theatre Review: The Illusionists
Above: Krendl inside the "Water Torture Cell" demonstrating his handcuffs for the media in Cape Town.
Since "Water Torture Cell" is Krendl's only routine in the programme he doesn't participate in the Cape Town shows at all even though he has both a 90-minute illusion show and a 60-minute comedy show in his personal arsenal. I met him briefly during the media call and he is laid-back and fun and interesting to talk to. I want to see him on stage even if it's not performing "Water Torture Cell". He's here and it's a waste that we're not getting to see him.

That's the lineup and an overview of what to expect in the show, which is suitable for kids from about the age of six. It's also suitable for squeamish people as it contains no body-horror magic... well, unless Ben Blaque accidentally shoots someone. The tone, style, and jokes, however, do occasionally drift into risqué or misogynistic - and more than one performer is at fault. It will go over the heads of kids but adults will notice it - most of it, anyway. (Chris Cox made a very clever but very off colour and inappropriate joke that was so subtexty that most people missed it.)

Theatre Review: The Illusionists
Above: Chris Cox.
This is always dangerous territory in which to play (I go into this a little bit in my recent overview of the Cape Town Magic Club). I don't like it because it sets a tone that builds a space in which there are audience members who don't feel safe and it then pushes them away from magic. The more it continues the greater becomes the number of audience members who end up in this space. Magic already has a number of stigmas attached to it and this doesn't help. I want people to feel welcome and comfortable so that their love of magic grows and they go and see more shows and support more performers.

This aside, I think the show is perfect for people who haven't seen much (or any) live magic. Hopefully they will come away having found that there's a particular style that they like and will seek out other performers who offer similar routines and have similar skills. There is much about The Illusionists to enjoy - but I also think there is much that can be improved.

Theatre Review: The Illusionists
Above: Mark Kalin and Jinger Leigh.
This is because magic enthusiasts and magicians are looking for a slightly different show within in this presentation that embodies originality and technical excellence. Unfortunately, in this regard, The Illusionists is a mixed bag.

On the technical side there are two aspects - production of the show and skill of the performers. The production of the show was problematic, although I have been told by someone who saw both the Wednesday and Thursday shows that Thursday was a vast improvement so opening night may have had an unusual number of teething problems. Unfortunately, that's the night for which I received media tickets and that's the night I have to base this review on but, because I suspected this, I did hold the review back a day to get confirmation of my suspicions.

We were informed during the media briefing a few hours before the opening night that due to "technical problems" some of the acts listed in the programme would not be included in that evening's performance but would be in the remainder of the run. One of the casualties was Jinger Leigh's solo piece, "Mystic Sphere", which was particularly disappointing for me as it's not very often that one gets to see a female magician perform by herself; in the rest of The Illusionists she performs as half of the Kalin-Jinger double act in the role of the assistant. Bad luck for me - I was there on the wrong night.

Another casualty was Darcy Oake's "Motor Bike" illusion. I have no idea what this is - it's something I haven't seen him do before - and I didn't get to see it.

During the live performance other technical problems occurred. In fact right after the opening act and introductions the show had to be stopped during the transition to the next item on the programme because something went wrong back stage. This happens - it really shouldn't if there has been enough rehearsal but it does - and it's not the end of the world. It helps that the lineup included David Williamson, who is the kind of magician who can walk on stage or into a crowd and start riffing - it's in these moments in which magic is almost like a jazz performance and it's wonderful to watch when you get a chance to see it. He frequently works with young volunteers, who are always totally unpredictable, and once you've mastered that you know how to control almost any situation. He kept the audience entertained - with something it's possible no other South African audience will get to see - while the cast and crew sorted out whatever had gone wrong backstage and then the show continued as planned and ran smoothly.

What was more egregious to me was the lack of training (or practice) that the on-stage camera operator had had, which is a result of faulty direction and not enough rehearsal. The show includes a multi camera setup that projects onto screens so the audience members are able to see what is going on on stage no matter where they are sitting, which is especially helpful for the close-up magic performances. One of these cameras occasionally moves in close on stage or follows the performers into the seating area as the magicians interact with the audience. There were a few moments in which this camera operator got in the way of the performers, which disrupted their focus or timing, and there were others in which he didn't always seem to know how best to frame and film the close-up magic so as to be beneficial for the audience without being detrimental to the performer.

With regard to the other type of technical consideration - the skill of the performers - I thought the show was uneven. While none of the performances are bad the skill levels did vary and it was quite clear to see who is on stage all the time or has been performing for decades versus up-and-coming performers who still need to make slight adjustments to moves, routines, and pacing to perfect their acts. Yet, I have been told, Thursday was once again better - the problems have been ironed out. I didn't get to see this, however.

I think the marketing pushed my expectations too high and because we have such a high standard of magic performance in Cape Town already it is not going to be easy for others to match that, although I still feel that if this is a Broadway show, if this is a West End show, if you're taking it around the world and charging premium prices for it the entire show needs to be at a certain level.

That level, however, comes from experience. David Williamson is an embodiment of this. I've seen a number of YouTube videos of him performing "The Training Of Wild Animals". He has perfected it. Although his set during The Illusionists is the first time I've seen him perform it live, I knew exactly what was going to happen, within a margin of error caused by the natural chaos of children, yet I still enjoyed it immensely and would happily watch it again and again.

In contrast, as some examples, there were small unintentional reveals in some of the slight-of-hand performances, by more than one magician, due to equipment that isn't suited for the moment or misdirection that doesn't misdirect well enough. These are small things that are eventually ironed out but by the time they are presented in a show such as this I expect that to have been done.

Theatre Review: The Illusionists
Above: Darcy Oake.
Another issue occurred with Darcy Oake and his handling of his animal assistants - his doves in particular. On the opening night his doves were unsettled, for whatever reason, and in response he was a little rough with them, which I didn't like at all. I've seen two videos of him performing versions of this routine and his handling was much more gentle in those cases. I was also very worried about his mice, which he kept flipping towards the centre of the table they were on as he was obviously worried that they may jump off and run into the wilds of GrandWest. (That's not something I'd recommend for anyone.)

There were other problems related to skill and performance but I'm not going to make a list as the particulars are not important - the overall sense of the level of quality is. The magic enthusiasts and magicians in the audience know what the problems are and those who have yet to attend the show will see them when they do. The general public probably won't.

Happily originality, the other aspect that enthusiasts are looking for, isn't a problem. The performers have all personalised their magic even if the basis of an act is a classic illusion or sleight-of-hand routine. They've put their stamp on it and this is what's always fun about seeing new performers - how do they interpret something that others have done before? What do they do differently? What do they change? What do they improve? What makes you go "Oh, that's so clever!"?

While there's no dearth of magicians in South Africa - and in Cape Town in particular - it has been many years since the country last hosted such a large show that's built around grand illusions designed to be enjoyed by thousands of people. The energy that develops in the room because of it is not something you can experience in a parlour setting, which is better suited to an intimacy and a form of visual poetry that will generate a sense of wonder.

I've highlighted problems within the show but I'm still glad it's here and I would happily watch it again. It is on a very limited run in Cape Town at the Grand Arena at GrandWest Casino And Entertainment World, unfortunately - the final performance is on Sunday night - and then the team moves to the Teatro at Montecasino in Johannesburg for a month.

Theatre Review: The Illusionists
Above: Jinger Leigh and Mark Kalin.
My hope is that the general public, which seems to have embraced it enthusiastically, also starts to pay more attention to what is happening locally. We have magicians who are just as good - they just don't currently have the means to put on such a massive production. Perhaps, however, one day some of them will be incorporated into the cast of The Illusionists.

Mandy J Watson was a media guest of The Illusionists and Showtime Management. Special thanks to Marcel Oudejans of Magic.Africa.

Tags: arts and culture, Cape Town, magic

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