Review: 'The Illusionists'

Skip Maloney

  It's been said (I honestly don't know by whom, but I believe it) that there is no more appreciative audience on earth than the ones being entertained by good magicians. Having attended a late morning performance of three scheduled performances of The Illusionists on Saturday, November 14, at the Durham Performing Arts Center, in Durham, NC, I bear witness to this.

They've been doing these sorts of shows for over a hundred years. It's the same kind of show Harry Houdini and his wife, Bess used to do around the turn of the 19th century. Only now, in the 21st century, the show has multiple performers, a lot of 21st century lighting techniques and a rock n' roll band. None of which altered, in the slightest, the crazy, titillating allure of a good illusionist, and one right after the other, these Illusionists delivered.

Though not specifically billed as such, they were well aware that this morning matinee had a family audience. This didn't stop the Illusionist known as The Anti-Conjuror (Dan Sperry) during the first segment of his overall performance. He had an audience member ascertain the presence of double-edged razor blades in an apple, 'ate' those blades and then drew them out of his mouth, attached to a string. The Anti-Conjuror has adopted a pretty powerful Goth persona for this act. Thin, with long, stringy black hair that invariably found its way in front of his dark eyes. Piercings, tattoos, and a black outfit that showed off a few muscles. He would return to the stage, later in the show, to do a magic routine with doves that was remarkably entertaining, full of those unavoidable smiles on the faces of people, young and old, saying "How'd he do that??!!"

We loved it in the 19th century, and here we are in the 21st, still loving it. It's got a lot more bells and whistles, these days. They don't use any of the available technology to do the tricks but they go all-out in the Spectacular Lighting And Sound department. They kick that up a notch or two, and toss a little Borscht Belt comedy into the mix with the Trickster (Jeff Hobson). He's more or less the MC of this show, and in his array of somewhat formal, but quirky MC costumes, he flits on and off the stage, grabbing the inevitable volunteers from the audience to assist him in the performance of a few garden-variety (though none the less entertaining) tricks. It's old-style comedy, but Hobson does it very well. He exhudes energy to the point where it powers the audience with whom he interacts.

He particularly enjoyed sliding an adult joke past the youngsters in the audience. He was doing a disappearing egg trick with a small velvet bag. The egg went in, and The Trickster asked the audience member on stage with him to feel the bag from the outside to determine that the egg was there. She did so. He told her to reach into the bag and feel the egg. She did so. Then he reached out himself, grabbed the egg with his right hand, turned his head and coughed.

A large burst of laughter from the audience, before he turned out to them, and ran his hand, front to back, about an inch over his head.

"The kids won't get it," he said.

The Trickster was a life-saver actually. Were it not for his light-hearted, but firm command of the stage, The Illusionists might have been a little too dark. You'd have to give the Most Cringe-Worthy award to the Anti-Conjuror and his razor blades, but the Daredevil, upside down, trying to get out of a straight jacket that his on-stage assistant had set on fire was a scary moment, too. The Weapon Master (Ben Blaque), who shoots crossbow arrows across the stage at a balloon being held by his wife, will make you cringe, as well. Especially when he dons a metal blindfold (verified by an audience member as having no pinholes for vision of any kind), and shoots a balloon being held over his wife's head, by first hearing her ring a bell, directly in front of that balloon. He first asked if there were any volunteers from the audience. No one volunteered, though I suspect the insurance people wouldn't have allowed it anyway.

It moved fast, and the illusions were very well done. The lights and sound interacted with The Trickster, and kept everything moving right along; building excitement, letting it go, having a laugh or two before getting back to the crossbows, men in suits on fire, and razor blades.

The Illusionists is a traveling carnival side show, done up with a sizeable budget, professional performers and stage technicians, and adequately does the job it sets out to do, in virtually the same way it was done over a hundred years ago. It's entertaining, it's fun, it's magical. And coming soon, to a theater near you; at the Neil Simon Theater on Broadway from November 19 through January 3, 2016, for example. Information about further stops on the US Tour can be found on the tour's Web site - They'll be travelling to various locales in California, Idaho, Washington (state), Maryland, Georgia, Florida, West Viginia, Maine, Connnecticut, Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Alabama through September of 2016.

Another set of Illusionists will be on tour in London from November 14 - January 3, 2016. They'll be in Cancun during the holidays; December 2-January 2 and in Singapore in September of 2016.

See it and rejuvenate that sense of awe that only good illusionists can deliver.