By Alix Cohen . . .
“When you start to wonder, you start to think, and there isn’t enough thinking going on.” (Todd Robbins)
At 25, Monday Night Magic is the city’s longest running Off-Broadway magic show. Except in Nevada and at private events, the art seemed to otherwise fade (though never disappear) from popular culture, then tenuously resurfaced with more theatrical presentations. Lately, it seems popularity across the country is picking up. Perhaps we need to believe more in what appears unbelievable. Throughout, Monday Night Magic’s flame burned steadily.
The venerable show shut down in March due to the pandemic, reinvented itself as a regularly streamed event in October, then reopened live at The Player’s Theater, a carriage house that converted in the 1950s. Atmosphere takes one back in time. The walls are peeling, music is decidedly old school. It’s kind of a latter day vaudeville experience. Every Monday, different performers take to an intimate stage or captivate even more closely at intermission. Practitioners from all over the world pass through.
Tonight’s show is hosted by one of MNM’s founders, actor/magician/historian/ writer/carny expert Todd Robbins whose ease on stage can only be called classic. The veteran seems to perform with a perpetually raised eyebrow in his voice. He challenge, insinuates, entertains.
Our first entertainer is not magical in a strict sense of the word. Juggler Michael Karas (with a dollop of ventriloquism on the side) is among those who seem to have trained objects to execute airborne choreography. Karas opens with a Muppet-like character genially singing from a perch on his left hand. Green balls are tossed, caught, balanced, juggled behind his back, under a leg.
The figure and balls are replaced by rings which sail, roll across his shoulders and back, hang from his ears and pause one inside the other. One size is replaced by two. Pins follow, at first to strains of James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” Both Karas’ flexible body and his “assistants” move rhythmically. Up and down the aisle he lopes, giving everyone a first-hand look. Lights dim, pins become rainbow tumblers. It’s charming.
Next is magician John Michael Hinton whose signature red hair stands at attention as if responding to electricity. Infectious, exuberant energy fills the theater. An empty, cardboard mailing envelope (we’re shown) is handed to a front row volunteer. Rubik’s Cube affects include a snap of the wrist aligning color sides, arbitrary manipulation by an audience member that curiously copies what’s already on a second cube, and a more original take- when a bag of colored, confetti-like, square stickers are tossed with a plain black cube only to affix themselves and finally morph into Skittles.
Hinton is good with an audience. Spontaneous hooting and hollering exhibit enthusiasm. Playing cards multiply and diminish in a stranger’s pocket. Paper bills are ripped and rejoined while grasped in volunteer hands. Random pages of an illustrated children’s book and the indicated fairytale are identified without looking, then manage to exit their binding and turn up elsewhere- remember the envelope? Fun!
Before the break, Robbins returns with a couple of his expert sideshow feats. For the uninformed, these are not tricks, but rather learned skills. (Eating a lightbulb, for which the artist has broken records, is another.) Following in the footsteps of “The Human Blockhead” Melvin Burkhart, Robbins hammers a previously examined 6” steel nail up his nose. Patter is droll. A skinny white balloon is then pushed up a nostril, emerging out of his mouth with air-filled bulbs at both ends. Folks, you can’t make this stuff up.
Act II features one of America’s most famous mentalists, performer for presidents and royalty, Jon Stetson. He may look like a well dressed accountant, but the entertainer’s dry wit and mischievous eye observe, respond, and adjust to indications of human flux few see. Turning the tables, audience members are asked to read his mind. Luck, statistical success? Something’s afoot here.
Stetson identifies the hour at which someone was born and knows not only the
written answers to pre-show questions sealed in envelopes, but bits about the writers. Odds are several audience members will go home to check on information he implausibly communicates. Goosing a participant for audible zeal, the mentalist gets marvelous, animated response. Playfulness draws in companions and parents “I’ve cured an entire family tonight. Now they have charisma!” The house reacts warmly as a collective body. There’s no dishonesty here, no pretention. We’ve come to be fooled and fooled we are! The day’s tension falls away.
Volunteers Maria and Julia stand apart, raise hands, and close their eyes. The ceremonial aspect draws us in. Palms apparently tingle- unless the performer steps between. One woman is then touched, yet both experience the brush of Stetson’s handkerchief. A numbers board not only adds up horizontally and vertically but turns out to be the serial number of an autonomously selected bill. The artist calls this like an auctioneer. We file out grinning.
During intermission, close-up prestidigitators Peter Samelson and Hayden Childress perform at the front and back of the theater inches away from observing eyes. A treat.
All photos courtesy of Monday Night Magic
http://mondaynightmagic.com/Every Monday at 8 p.m. with different performers
Vaccination proof and masks please
The Players Theater
115 MacDougal Street