nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
September 17, 2006
My favorite part of Esoterica, Eric Walton's charmer of a one-man show, is a poem about a supposed meeting between Harry Houdini and a peerless London card shark named Jake O'Malley. Walton, who is a terrific actor as well as a dextrous illusionist/magician/mentalist/sleight-of-hand artist, recites this delicious bit of doggerel while demonstrating the gambling moves described in it: O'Malley bets Houdini £1,000 that he (Houdini) can't cut to four-of-a-kind. Will the professional cheat best the world's most famous magician? I'll leave that for you to discover; the joyous part of the thing is that we get to see Walton, whose hands are projected in close-up on a handy video screen, manipulate the cards in homage to both of his legendary characters. It's a dazzler.
But that's just one of the segments of Esoterica; true to its title, and to its creator-performer's wide-ranging tastes and interests, the show covers lots of ground, sampling all sorts of intellectual pursuits of the impressively deceitful kind. There's a segment where Walton plays a game called "Fast & Loose" with a hapless audience member, this little-known confidence scheme being a fairly ancient precursor to Three Card Monte and the shell game. There's another thrilling demonstration of card-handling prowess where he successfully locates seemingly random cards within a shuffled-and-cut 52-card deck. And there's a bit where he invokes the spirits of the dead to make their presence known to us by levitating a child's toy that he calls, tongue-firmly-planted-in-cheek, Mr. PoTAHto Head.
Walton also tantalizes the audience with a bit of mind-reading and a dizzying display of what he terms "intellectual swashbuckling" in which he proves that, in addition to not ever wanting to play poker with him for money, you will also not want to challenge him to a game of chess or even a friendly SuDoku match. Esoterica isn't just mind-blowing mentalism à la Marc Salem or nifty card-sharkery à la Ricky Jay or postmodern illusion à la Penn & Teller: it's a tour through all of these domains and more. Walton deftly showcases his eclectic skill and artistry while keeping up a patter that sneakily manages to feel ingenuous, profound, and cynical at the same time. I wrote once that Walton's act feels like something that the Devil himself might have dreamed up for his stage debut. I stand by that: Walton's persona is delightfully shifty, edgy, and almost—but not quite—dangerous.
Walton is also, as a number of choice moments in Esoterica remind us, a fine, accomplished actor and writer. This, above all, distinguishes this show from others that tread similar ground.
Esoterica includes a good deal of audience involvement, but despite how it may feel moment to moment it's perfectly safe: if (when!) you go, be ready to participate freely, and to engage with this masterful performer in whatever ways he wants you to. Esoterica is half con, half illusion, but it's almost always astonishing. And it's 100% pure theatrical magic.