“When was the last time you experienced real magic?” magician Eric Jones asked spectators during Sunday’s performance of “The Conjurors’ Club.”
The question was fraught and complicated in ways that Jones may not have intended. Thanks to the pandemic, the realness and immediacy of the physical world has had to take a back seat to the artificiality and distance of the virtual world.
Indeed, if defined by live, in-person performance, it’s been a long time since audiences have experienced real anything.
Then, of course, there’s the ineluctable fact that magic, by its nature, seeks to breach the border between real and unreal. We know the feats we’re witnessing are not “real,” we know there are tricks involved, but we willingly surrender to the illusion. If the magicians are skilled enough, they can induce a how-are-they-doing-this? incredulity on our part.
All of that happened a fair number of times with “The Conjurors’ Club,” presented by Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater. But seldom did the performance cast the enchanting spell of a true Event.
Most of the card tricks and other routines in “The Conjurors’ Club” are ingenious, and some of them are dazzling. Still, even by the hyperbolic standards of marketing ballyhoo, the show’s claim that it “redefines the face of modern magic” is wildly overstated. While it was a pleasant enough way to pass 80 minutes on a Sunday afternoon, the performance overall was uneven, its rhythms choppy.
Hosted by co-creator Geoff Kanick, “The Conjurors’ Club” featured sensory illusionist Jeanette Andrews and celebrated magician Ran’D Shine in addition to Jones. The trio rotated among several different breakout rooms, meaning they were seen by everyone in the audience, in different orders. Their serial appearances were punctuated by pauses that broke the flow, the online equivalent of lengthy scene changes.
“The Conjurors’ Club” gestures toward a metaphysical framework having to do with the properties of time (”I’ll see you earlier. I mean later,” Kanick said more than once on Sunday). Like all magic, it also plays with the laws of probability, and, especially, the manipulation of perception.
No spoilers here, but I can say that Jones pulled off an astonishing feat with a Rubik’s Cube in addition to some impressive sleight-of-hand with playing cards. Andrews had to sidestep an apparent glitch in one routine, but recovered with a nifty trick involving a candle and a spool of thread. Shine, for his part, worked wonders with thimbles, playing cards, and a watch.
But “The Conjurors’ Club” was originally created as a live show, and something was inevitably lost in the transition, because magic is an art that depends on a connection with the people in the room. You had to feel for the performers as they tried to build a rapport with an audience that was hovering out there in cyberspace, their oohs and ahhs mostly inaudible. Once again, the limitations of livestreaming, and of interactive shows for that matter, became apparent as “The Conjurors’ Club” magicians engaged in stilted exchanges with individual spectators.
The plight of the magicians mirrored that of performing artists in numerous other disciplines during the pandemic. They have had to shrink their acts — and themselves, in a way — to fit into Zoom boxes after training for years with a certain set of assumptions about the form their performances would take. Indeed, Andrews told the audience that she has been performing magic since early childhood.
Shine, however, said he didn’t develop an interest in magic till he was in graduate school, adding that he managed to pay off his student loans with the money he earned doing card tricks. Now, that’s a magic act.
THE CONJURORS’ CLUB
Created by Vinny DePonto and Geoff Kanick. Presented online by American Repertory Theater. Through April 10. Tickets $58. 617-547-8300, www.AmericanRepertoryTheater.org