Nothing Up My Sleeve, for I Am SLEEVELESS: The Magic Cabaret
THEN, it was tremendously popular and got an extended run, but remained on Tuesdays. The toying with me was only moderate, though, as the extension included some Tuesdays in the interim between OTSFM sessions. M got on the stick and got us some tickets for this week.
The show runs in the upstairs theater at the Biograph Theater, which now belongs to Victory Gardens Theater. I haven't been there since it was a movie theater (in fact, I believe I saw South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut there).
The renovation of the interior is impressive. The lobby is a nice, welcoming space. I didn't get to see the mainstage, (but I will! More on that later). The upstairs theater, where the MC takes place, is a little problematic. It's not one of those long, narrow dog-run-type spaces that a lot of theaters find themselves having to make do with, but it is longer north to south than it is wide east to west.
The west wall is a brick face with newly installed windows (but from some flaws in the brick, I think these are built into spaces that have always housed windows). It's a weird, mismatched arrangement of windows looking out over the marquee and awning of the theater on to Lincoln Avenue. Fortunately, they seem to be have been installed with sound proofing in mind, but there are still issues with light coming in.
For the Magic Cabaret, a small, low stage (about 6' x 5' and maybe 18" high) is set near the west wall against a burgundy drape hung between the banks of windows. The house comprises about 30 seats set in three clusters of two rows each. Behind the audience and opposite the stage is a tall (and I assume movable) stage or thrust that was probably even smaller than the stage used in the show. On the north and south walls there are somewhat wing spaces built in with floor-to-ceiling walls.
For the artistic purposes of the Cabaret, the size of the space and house are a feature, not a bug. As numerous reviewers have noted, the "parlor magic" flavor has a lot to recommend it over glitz, tigers, and making the statue of liberty disappear(shame on him!).
The main drawback to the space is, unfortunately, the acoustics. The brick and relatively high ceilings make for a lot of echoing, and much of the show is subtle and sound-dependent enough that this does interfere. And, of course, many of the easier solutions (more sound draping, more sound-dampening carpets [they already have two, one on the stage and one immediately in front of it]) could easily look like attempts to conceal the tricks of the trade.
The sound may have been an even bigger problem in the specific performance we saw, which, I believe, was unusual. P. T. Murphy, one of the two main performers and founder of the show, did not appear at all, except in a photograph (which kept making me laugh and laugh) and, near the end of the show, via cell phone.
David Parr, the other half of the founding duo, shared most of Act I with special guest Benjamin Barnes (woo! South Side, represent!), which was embedded in the set-up for Act II, which dealt with Murphy's absence. Per the oath I took, I won't dwell on the specifics of either performer's illusions, but certainly they put proof to their own theme: The oldest tricks get their magic not from the mechanics of the illusion, but from the style and personality of the performer.
I, of course, don't know how Murphy and Parr usually work together, but Parr and Barnes took on a loose "good cop-bad cop" framework, with Parr leaning toward the geeked out "believer" persona and Barnes ably playing the wink-and-nod skeptic. There were some rough spots in the scripted dialogue, but I'm more than willing to give them a pass on the grounds that (a) they're not exactly trying to pull off Shakespeare here and (b) whatever unusual circumstances might've benched Murphy for the evening, they probably didn't have a lot of time either to craft the story line or to rehearse it. And, in general, both guys are charming in very different ways and very, very good at what they do. Moreover, the parts of the show that seemed to be more standard have a fair amount of history of magic and highlight Chicago's place in that history. And if you think that didn't appeal to me, you seriously underestimate my nerditude.
The other super-special guest was Arthur Trace, who did about a 10-minute set solo in Act I. Without at all wishing to play favorites or sound as if Barnes and Parr compare unfavorably, Trace rather knocked our socks off. We feel fortunate to have caught his last show. To fully disclose all possible points of bias, I got picked to participate in a trick of his (I think probably because it was hot as hell on Tuesday an I was wearing a spaghetti-strapped top and and outfit that otherwise pretty obviously had no pockets), I won't reveal any of the specifics (I, like, took an oath, man!), but I have no idea at all how it was done and I'm still feeling a bit like a giddy kid about that.
In fact, I'm feeling like a giddy kid about the whole thing. As I've written rather ad nauseum over the last few months, I've lately been fascinated with magical performance and art derivative of it. (Feel fortunate that I have never completed the entry on my triumph as a cold tarot reader, because it keeps coming out damnably personal and painful.)
One of the most striking experiences of the evening came not during the show, but at intermission. The audience, quite naturally, seems to have had a fair number of folks who were interested in the mechanics of the performance, what was scripted, what was a real glitch, and so on. There were many more authoritative voices on this subject at intermission than there could be authorities in the audience.
I was not one of them. No way, man. I've read a moderate amount on those mechanics, and in the abstract, I am interested in them, particularly those that require interaction with the audience: How do you force a card? How do you deal with someone who "overhelps" in a trick? With someone who's too rigid? (I can neither confirm nor deny into what category I fall.) But in the specific case of the show, it was such a pleasure to be fooled and baffled and delighted.
Early on in the evening, I viewed their stage manager with envy, thinking I'd kill for that gig. I think it's obvious from my blatherings that, in general, my theater-going experiences are enhanced by having been a theater-doing being in the past (despite my inner stage manager weeping at the UNNECESSARY DANGER AND TROUBLE THAT DIRECTORS REGULARLY COURT!). But in this case, I feel like I could enjoy myself over and over again in seeing this show. I'm not saying that knowing would reduce my enjoyment. But it was a delightful recapture of that childlike feeling not to know.