I recently went to a magic show, and by that I don’t mean a guy with a hat and a wand at a kid’s party. What I saw was a mega-magic extravaganza at a ginormous casino complex with disappearing Ferraris, pyrotechnics, women who were separated from their torsos and “international stars” of prestidigitation. I went because there was an occasion but also (at least I told myself) out of professional curiosity. After all, as performers go, magicians must sit high on the pecking order. Who else can get the average cynical adult like myself to suspend her disbelief so completely that she oohs at every trick, knowing absolutely it’s just a matter of perception, a bet on legerdemain that the eye cannot follow? As the card tricks flashed by, I wondered what makes anyone who has passed into the so-called age of reason, fall for “magic” anyway; is it the mystery, the suspense, the hope that something thrilling will happen? When our maestro seemed genuinely concerned about the tension on the chains from which he was about to stage a final escape act and it seemed he was really going to attempt something daring, I concluded it must be hope. I’ll never know how much of that finale was real and how much was mirrors but he “got” me, as dreadful as that may be to admit.
With those thoughts in mind, back in NYC, I went to see “Real Magic,” Forced Entertainment’s offering in PS 122’s COIL program that opened this week. The title is an obvious and ironic oxymoron for this show that is not at all about magic, as we understand the term, whether as wizardry or conjuring. Its premise is rather to confound our belief in the extraordinary, so mundane are the show’s “events,” if they can even be afforded so grand a description as that.
The conceit of the show is simple: three performers engage in a bastardized version of one of those swami acts in which a diviner intuits something about an audience member. Here, the trick is to guess what word one of the trio is thinking of, with no prompts or guidance at all. It’s a completely random guess, and the chances of succeeding are one in a million. Try and fail they do, again, and again, and again, and again, for the entire show.
Yet their gambit is also both simpler and more complicated than that. The genial trio, composed of Jerry Killick, Richard Lowdon and Claire Marshall, “swap” places at every new attempt, taking turns at being the one who chooses the word, the one who must guess it, and the game’s host. Indeed, the show presents as a gameshow, with canned laughter, recorded applause and thumping music running in a loop. Moreover, and rather maddeningly, the game is on a loop too – and the show and the audience with it; the actors repeat exactly the same lines with each new try so that the impossibility of guessing any word outside of the script is clear within the first 10 minutes. The show has been described as “Beckett meets trash TV” and more than a few audience members leaving the theater were heard groaning (I paraphrase slightly) : “Thank God that Godot torture is over!”
So what is Forced Entertainment getting at here? The gag is no surprise coming from Tim Etchells’ theater collective; upending performance orthodoxy is just “what they do” and “real magic” of the kind that peddles in a fiction of drama and emotions is not. The trick they’re after lies in whatever moments of spontaneity that the predetermined script allows: the myriad ways of playing that same scene, whether fast and blasé about the outcome; measured and enthusiastic for every possibility; or slow and angry with the concept (will someone finally guess the word since we all know what it is by now so we can finally go home?), and every variation in between. The actors don’t appear to be following any directions as to the number of times they play each role, the combinations they make as a trio or the outfits they sport (among a choice of three: underwear, a chicken costume and a baggy suit). They also seem to surprise each other at times in the pacing they set and their improvised antics. We may be in a loop but it’s a live loop, not a prerecorded one. Things can happen, and we have to challenge ourselves to be sensitive to them and ask what they change.
There’s also an interesting riff on power dynamics in the fact that the host usually forms a conspiratorial duo with either his assistant or the game’s participant, depending on whether he seems to want the word guessed or not, leaving the third player out of the joke. It’s also not an accident that the game’s original word guesser is dressed in underwear and a blindfold. Knowledge is power and ignorance a liability, which is also the premise on which all magic shows rest. Here, however, we are all in the “know” except for what the actors can throw us in the live moment, and also in what we feed the actors via our participation, whether we giggle along with the canned laughter (more contagious than you might think) or finally fold our arms and turn off our curiosity.
Is it naive or human to hope that each attempt at the same game might turn up a new outcome, a happy surprise? Isn’t that hope what sends us out into the world, to try our chances, day after day? Life often feels like a routine but it’s much closer to a game of craps. Like real magic, the show Real Magic also asks: do we choose to see practice or do we dare seek possibility?