Glenn Kaino and Ryan Majestic: Honor Among Thieves

I've long been interested in magic, but long hated the cheesiness that often accompanies it (as I have previously written here).  I've also long been a fan of the producing organization Creative Time's work, so when I got an email from them promoting a magic show as part of the Performa festival, I thought it might be interesting.  And interesting it was.

The description said:

In a hybrid performance of art and magic, Los Angeles-based artist Glenn Kaino collaborates with renowned magician Ryan Majestic in an awe-inspiring interrogation of what is and isn’t believable: a question at the heart of both age-old traditions.

Pretty vague, but I thought, given the players, that it might be interesting.  So I talked a friend into going, and here's what happened at the Slipper Room in the East Village last night. The curtain opens and there is a huge stack of decks of playing cards visible. Magician Ryan Majestic comes on stage with an assistant, and he picks a deck from the top of the pile, and selects someone from the audience.  He does a bit of patter, asking her if she believe in psychics and so on. He said he used to believe in them, but not so much anymore (kudos from me for that, of course), but he said he got a vision of a card and turned it upside down in the deck in advance, and then he asked the audience member to name a card.  He talked about deja vu, and then fanned out the deck, and a card is, in fact, turned upside down in the deck, now facing him.  He asks her if she would like to see the card, and she says yes.  He asks if she's sure, and then he shows it to her, and it is, in fact, her selected card.  He then goes upstage, asks the audience member's name, writes it on the deck of cards, and has his assistant give it to her.

He then does the exact same trick for the next audience member sitting next to her.  And then he does the same thing again and again and again, working through the audience row by row.  One woman said she did not want to see the card, and so he ended the trick and did not give her the deck.  Another woman picked the exact same card as the person before her to test the magician (he passed).  Being a peformance festival in NYC, many audience members tried to outsmart Majestic's banter, but, being in the magician's position, Majestic was always able to one-up the audience member. 

I guess this was actually spelled out in advance, but I didn't read it very carefully (from the event page on Facebook):

The show will begin by evoking the experience of wonder at first seeing a magic trick performed. Then, slowly, through the performance art technique of repetition, the audience will become a part of the magician’s process of rehearsal and refinement, witnessing how the magician engages audience members in different ways. Before the audience, the trick moves from one of illusion to one of technique. The deconstruction of the trick forces a reevaluation not only of the specific trick, but the blurry terrain between art and magic. The performance will transform the Slipper Room into an experimental laboratory where ideas are worked out in real time—ultimately becoming a rumination on the relationship between a performer and his audience. The evening will end with seemingly impossible illusions performed by Kaino and Majestic.

Magicians, much like artists, make changes to one’s basic understanding of reality. Honor Among Thieves is an attempt, says Kaino, “to learn to believe and not believe at the same time.” It is the first of many ongoing experiments with art and magic that the artist will make as an interrogation of the social contract and a restructuring of systems of validation and meaning.

Majestic got through about the first two rows or so of the theatre, and one woman said she was not interested in participating the trick.  After a few more iterations of the trick, the woman got up, and, as she was leaving, loudly said, "This is coercion!  It's coercion!"  At that point, they quickly closed the curtain and someone had to come out and explain the show was over.

This was a kind of fascinating performance experiment on many levels.  First to me, as someone interested in magic, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out the trick's method, but Majestic did a great job of keeping this to himself (he also got it right every single time).  It was also interesting to watch how the same trick would play differently, depending on how the audience member reacted, even though we knew what was coming. This is why, as a backstage crew member, it's always interesting to work on shows where there is no fourth wall and performers interact with the audience--you never know what's going to happen.  It was also fascinating to see how long it would take until someone walked out (my friend and I were discussing it, but this woman beat us to it), and what kind of exodus would occur at that point (I see the same thing when giving tests at school--once one person finishes and leaves, a big clump will go right afterwards).  In this case, everyone except the woman (who someone next to me said was a famous choreographer) stayed to see what would happen.

The show ran just two performances, and I can't say I would recommend it, unless you're a performance/magic geek.  But my friend and I talked a lot about the whole thing at dinner after, which I guess was the point.