I used to dabble in magic. Not the stage stuff, but some good old Grant Morrison stylee-sigilization, Chaos magick and the like. It was a phase, and I hope it comes back soon (some of that shit really seemed to work, honest). So I have a soft spot for the craft, the illusion, and the spell. I have a book that describes itself AS A spell (it very much DID work). And once I saw THE SHADOW CUTTER at the GCTC this past week, I immediately started seeing it as a spell, too. Or at the very least, a cleverly crafted illusion.
Written by and starring Ottawa legend Pierre Brault (who I caught a while back in his magnificent PORTRAIT OF AN UNIDENTIFIED MAN, another show about a flawed historical trickster), directed by Brian Quirt and co-starring the Bifurcated Man Andy Massingham as Dai Vernon, the most legendary magician you’ve never heard of. Right away, the play sets out with a bit of trickery, making you do a double take before you realize the show has even begun. Then another classic bit of hanky-poo, the plant in the audience. It’s a rather daring start, I thought…the house lights don’t even go down ’til about 6 or 7 minutes in.
Massingham as Vernon takes us through the story of his life, with Pierre Brault serving as a host of characters (no fewer than 10 I can recall right off) who interact with him on his journey from Ottawa to New York and beyond. Guided by a treasured tome on card-playing that he always carries with him, Dai Vernon is obsessed with learning every trick there is. It starts with his father, leads him to smooth-talking Sam Margolis on Coney Island, and a myth-making moment with the man himself, Harry Houdini. Vernon tricks the great magician, makes his name, meets his future wife, and all seems to be going his way. But there’s always something he’s searching for, somewhere, and when he hears of a move called ‘the center deal’, his path becomes set. For good or ill.
There are amazing things going on in SHADOW CUTTER. The set, which looks almost cramped at first, serves as a true magic box, expanding and contracting as needs be, playing with your eyes and making us see exactly what they want us to see. Massingham is solid throughout as Vernon, obsessively pursuing his precious secrets for reasons only known to the elite circle of magicians he travels in. And Pierre Brault is in full-on chameleon mode, switching from the flamboyant Houdini to Vernon’s deceptively plain-talking wife Jean (among many others) with his usual ease.
But the spell only partially worked, for me. The ingredients are there, but despite how insanely talented everyone involved in this production is, there’s something kind of…off. A few of the reveals are simply too sudden to evoke the kind of reaction they’re going for, for starters. Now, don’t get me wrong…Brault, Massingham and Quirt at simply ‘okay’ are still better than most people’s A-game. And this show is better than ‘okay’, it’s damned good. But from the dress rehearsal on Sunday to my 2nd viewing on Saturday there were noticeable changes, and I suspect that in any future staging the evolution of this piece will continue. Brault, like Vernon before him, is still searching (I think) for that elusive center deal, the precise telling of this story that will weave its magick on all who witness it. And as it’s pretty amazing NOW…I definitely wanna see where it goes from here.
Wow, that was almost critical…I clearly need a drink. And I should point out, I’m looking very much forward to seeing this show AGAIN on the 23rd (another volunteer shift). Also that I’m off to ST.CARMEN OF THE MAIN on Thursday, and hope I see some peeps thereabouts (nice seeing Nick diGaetano at CRUSH IMPROV yesterday too…break many legs, Nick!). Peace, Love and Soul you lot,
The Visitor (and Winston)