I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of magic, probably because I could never separate the high-profile practitioners from the actual craft. When I was growing up, there was the ostentatious and oft-parodied Siegfried & Roy with their white tigers; the cheesy made-for-TV illusions of David Copperfield (he made the Statue of Liberty disappear and floated over the Grand Canyon); and the cuddly hippie Doug Henning, none of which held any kind of appeal for me. What I missed, however, was that magic was never about spectacle, but rather about the joy of astonishment. It’s something that the American Repertory Theater’s “The Conjurors Club” delivers in spades – as well as hearts, clubs and diamonds – with their bewildering card tricks and sleights of hand.
What separates the illusionists featured in “Conjurors” from their predecessors is the level of intimacy and connection brought to the table, despite the fact that the production happens in the Zoomosphere rather than in a nightclub or theater. While few theater offerings on Zoom create that vital bond between performer and audience, the magicians – by virtue of having audience members directly or indirectly participate in their various tricks – does just that.
The Conjuror’s Club, “the most secret and delightful magic society,” features four performers, including host Geoff Kanick, one of the show’s creators, and a rotating group of magicians. Audience members get a “secret package” in the mail before the performance that contains, among other things (which will remain secret of course) a deck of cards. The production opens with a montage of grainy black and white films depicting magicians from what one imagines to be the early 20th century, and gives a brief history on the importance of keeping the closely guarded secrets of the trade. “The difference with a magical secret is that it’s designed to spark wonder!” says the narrator.
“The Conjurors Club,” created by Vinny DePonto and Geoff Kanick, is presented online by the American Repertory Theater through May16.
Kanick kicks off the show with a somewhat complex card trick that had me scrambling to keep up with the instructions (while taking reviewer’s notes), but at its conclusion, it was, quite frankly, mind-boggling. What made it even more so was knowing that not only had I ended up with the cards Kanick expected me to (despite my fevered shuffling) but so did the 60 or so other audience members. After a few more equally compelling tricks, the audience was split into three breakout rooms for a 15-minute session with each of the three other performers, presented one after another, like speed dating. Only fun.
One of the things that makes the 75-minute show so enjoyable is the charm of the performers themselves. There’s no sequins, wild animals or bad Criss Angel rock ’n’ roll with smoke machines, just regular-ish folks you might meet at a party – who just happen to have the ability to bewitch and bewilder. So we get Ran’d Shine, who gave up his epidemiology career to do card tricks and still paid off his student loans doing so; Jeanette Andrews, who did her first magic show at the age of 4 and scored her first paying gig at 6; and Eric Jones, who was a semifinalist on “America’s Got Talent” and is the closest thing to a showbiz type, delivering witty quips along with his magic act.
As for the tricks and illusions? You’ll have to see for yourselves, as I’m sworn to secrecy (Kanick urged the audience “not to tell a single soul, but to spread widely across social media”), but suffice to say each performer has a few jaw-droppers up their respective sleeves.
One audience warning – and one familiar to anyone who spends time on Zoom – is that people often fail to mute themselves, like when your co-worker’s dog won’t stop barking during your presentation. Had I read the A.R.T.’s instructions beforehand, I would have known to “pin each conjuror’s video when they enter your room.” Instead, I missed Jeannette Andrew’s stunning “candle and thread” illusion, which I was assured by a friend was one of the evening’s highlights.
“The Conjurors Club” is a magical experience. Now if only the conjurors could make the pandemic disappear and we could all get back to the theater.
A version of this story appeared originally on TheaterMirror.net.