Magic is all about deflection and misdirection. The magician gets the audience to focus on the thing that doesn't matter while he maneuvers to make something else happen—something that seems to be...magical. Actors do this, too, with slightly altered emphasis and motivation. And con men and politicians do it, also, although for somewhat different reasons. With every kind of sleight-of-hand trickster, the effect depends on the audience's willingness and desire to be amazed, or fooled; and humans have apparently limitless desire to be fooled, or to fool themselves.
All of the foregoing is what Radnevsky's Real Magic is about.
I loved this show: it's a grand, exciting, intimate magic show, performed in the First Floor Theatre in La MaMa, which means that especially in the first several rows you are closer to the magicians than you're likely ever to have been. Because it's a Talking Band show, you know that there's ever more than meets the eye here than in any regular magic show; writer/director Paul Zimet inserts layers of narrative and story and allusion and illusion on top of and between and around the layers that an ordinary magic show naturally has. It's not postmodernly self-conscious, like a latter-day Penn & Teller show; instead it's meta, a show about magic in all of its various meanings and conjurations. It's a show where you're never completely sure who is the magician and who is the assistant, or more to the point, who is fooling whom. Is everyone in the room just a willing accomplice to the nefarious manipulations of a guy with a magic wand?
The back story of Radnevsky's Real Magic is in the program: we are told that some 33 years ago, in this very theatre, a tragedy occurred during one of Anton Radnevsky's shows when an audience member suddenly fell ill and died during the performance. Tonight we are witnessing Radnevsky's comeback. Part of what ensues is the unraveling of the mystery from three decades back: who was the mysterious man who died, and what significance did his demise have for our protagonist?
This story, along with a couple of others that unfold onstage without our necessarily realizing it, is conveyed via the patter delivered by Radnevsky and his assistant/protege, Harry Telkhines. Mostly what Anton and Harry do is their magic acts. You've seen some of this before: coins pulled from audience members' ears and cards pulled from thin air; a box full of needles swallowed and then removed from the throat on a single strand of thread (I had never seen that particular trick performed so close up, however). People appear and disappear in a variety of novel and surprising ways. A beautiful living snowglobe is conjured before our eyes. Two tricks I've only ever seen on TV—a man holding his breath inside a tank of water and the famous swords-through-the-box gambit—are presented live as part of the proceedings. And there are demonstrations of mentalism and other seemingly unexplainable events—shall we call them miracles? (Radnevsky mentions at one point that Moses did this kind of thing when he turned his staff into a snake.)
The magic is thrilling, and the audience's reaction to the magical feats is edifying. At certain moments in the show, I caught myself watching myself watching: I would realize that I was seeing an illusion but instead of trying to work out how the thing was accomplished, I was instead utterly wrapped up in the relationships between Anton and Harry and the crowd. That is magic.
Zimet's staging is fluid and exciting, and the designs of Anna Kiraly (set), Nan Zhang (lighting), and Kiki Smith (costumes) compliment the piece perfectly. Ellen Maddow contributes a musical score that's splendidly evocative. The magic acts themselves are credited to Peter Samelson, who plays Anton, with additional magic by Dennis Kyriakos (Harry), Imam, and Jim Steinmeier. Samelson and Kyriakos are adept actors as well as magicians, completely convincing us that they are Anton and Harry, and that their complicated and strained teacher/student bond is real.
The hand and (as Lorenz Hart once wrote) the heart are both quicker than the eye, which is why magic and theatre are so exhilarating and involving...and why politicians and others offstage who indulge in prestidigation are so dangerous. Be warned: at Radnevsky's Real Magic, as indeed everywhere you are liable to go in your life, things are not always what they seem.