Now You See It…

I have always been fascinated by sleight of hand. I am obsessive by nature, and there is nothing more absorbing than watching cards disappear and appear from the hands of an expert magician, desperately trying to catch the trick.

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 So I was quite excited to visit Los Angeles’ famed Magic Castle. Begun in 1963, the Magic Castle is a club for magicians. One cannot get in unless invited by a member, which just adds to the mystery. Fortunately, member magician Michael Yanovich was kind enough to invite me (in truth, Michael jumps at any excuse to go, and his love of the history of the place and of magic is infectious).

There I was, waiting in line to enter that fascinating place. There are no pictures allowed and they would not do it justice anyway. I am loath to talk about the actual place at all, for fear of spoiling any future experiences. The rooms, of which there are many, are decked out in dark wood and one feels as though one has been transported back to the early 1900s. Everyone is in a suit or dressed, and everyone takes the fun very seriously. When Irma the ghost plays the piano, on request, everyone applauds and thanks the invisible musician as they would a physical piano player at the local bar.

But the real fun is to be found in the show rooms. A rotating group of visiting magicians perform in one of the multiple rooms and they are open to any visitor (there may be a line but the shows are repeated throughout the evening so if you miss one you can catch it later).

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The three shows I saw mainly focused on the simplest of all things — the card trick. When I say simple, I do not mean the skill itself, just the simplicity of the premise. No giant set pieces, no lights, no mirrors or explosions. Just one performer with two hands and 52 cards. 

These “close up” rooms are just that — close up. When Pop Haydn performed his bar tricks, I was no more than four feet away. I knew what was coming. I tried to avoid the distractions. I watched the off hand. But I still couldn’t see how that card ended up in his pocket. It was simply a skilled practitioner fooling a gaggle of laughing onlookers.

In the close up room, the magician made a pack disappear from his open hand leaving only one. I knew it was a trick but surely what he did was impossible. The onlookers just laughed.

When Handsome Jack tore a program into pieces I knew it would, at some point, be made whole again. But I still couldn’t see how it was done. I “know” that he is palming it somehow, but knowing and seeing are two different things.

The joy at seeing the impossible becoming possible is almost childlike. When the cards appeared or disappeared, the 20 or so people in the small room applauded — but also laughed. Despite our best efforts we were fooled again. And again and again. 

And each time the magician tricked me I felt like I won. We are always trying to figure this world out and, often, the lack of understanding can be frustrating. These magicians remind me that no matter how hard I try, I still can’t figure out how it all works. It’s a point worth making about everything — have fun and enjoy the show. Figuring that out would be a good trick.

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Expressions and Mobility

I am on my first trip to Los Angeles, birthplace of the movies (yes, I know about the Lumiére brothers and others around the world, but let’s face it, Hollywood is movies). There are many cool sights to behold and I am dashing from landmark to landmark with abandon.

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However, I have priorities, and less than 24 hours after I arrived I made my way to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to see a couple of exhibitions and sundry other works. It is not cheap ($25 a ticket to see the featured exhibitions), but I am willing to pay for art, so it doesn’t really matter.

First up was “Expressionism in Germany and France: Van Gogh to Kandinsky.” The show features many excellent paintings that will be familiar to anyone with a basic 20th-century art book. It was an interesting show and a very broad overview of art from the fin de siécle into the 1930s.

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When I think expressionism I think the German “Die Brücke” artists, and they were well represented. I also think Van Gogh and Gauguin, and they were there also. I do not, however, think Cezanne, yet there he was. I am fully aware of the influence he had on that following generation of artists — Braque was a huge fan and it informed his cubism. But it seemed like there was an awful lot of him. Similarly, the Fauves are of the period, but not expressionistic as such, nor do I think of Picasso as an expressionist.

However, I am nitpicking. It was a fine overview of the period. And any time I can get up close and personal with Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff I am a happy boy. There were some very nice woodcuts, a variety of paintings from Andre Derain to Kees van Dongen (one of my favorite names), and some books from the period.

It was a very good show but not a great one. I would have liked to see a tighter theme.

Calder and Abstraction: From Avant Garde to Iconic,” however, was a Wow!” show. It was not a massive installation, but was tight and showed Alexander Calder‘s mobiles in all their glory. Most major museums have a big Calder hanging prominently somewhere, but this show had a lot of smaller work that really showed the skill involved in the construction — especially in the delicate compositions.

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The smaller pieces use thinner wire, which makes them all the more precarious, as each element balances perfectly to create the piece. One can truly see that even a millimeter one way or the other would throw the piece into chaos — both compositionally and, probably, construction-wise. More than one piece was so finely balanced that the whole thing rested on a sharp point.

Added to the effect are the delicate shadows, like ephemeral drawings, that play on the platforms and walls around the pieces. At their best, Calder’s smaller works are three-dimensional drawings, with a flow and vibrancy that seem to defy their material construction. This show is a real treat.

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My other main delight was seeing Robert Motherwell’s “Elegy for the Spanish Republic,” which is on permanent display. It is always a treat to see a favorite painting — one that has previously existed only in art books — in the flesh. It is even better to find it lives up to its reputation. A beautiful piece and I enjoyed basking in its scale and beauty.

There’s more art than can be seen in a gallery, though, and I am off to explore the city, camera in hand. More to come later.

The ‘Theater’ of the Game

When people see me at art shows or at the theater or at poetry readings, they get a sense of who I am — that “arts guy” — an image I am happy to embrace. But when I begin to wax lyrical about my love of basketball, or even more, soccer (and yes, I know it’s really football, but when in Rome…), I am constantly surprised by the reaction. “You like sports? I would never have guessed.” It is as if sports and art are mutually exclusive interests. To that I say, “au contraire.” Sports are the perfect complement to the arts.

England won the World Cup in 1966.

England, captained by Bobby Moore, won the World Cup in 1966.

The World Cup starts tomorrow, and I am extremely excited (as well as filled with the dread and sense of impending doom that comes with being an England fan). It is not called the beautiful game for nothing. Like basketball (which shares many of the same characteristics), the game is live action theater, with twists and turns, misery and joy, all happening improvisationally. Long before it dominated network TV, my friend Pete told me that he had been watching reality TV for decades. It was called basketball.

Think about it. Both plays and sporting events begin in a controlled arena. A play takes place in a theater. A game begins in a stadium (Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium is nicknamed “The Theatre of Dreams). During the course of two hours, events will unfold before our eyes. In Shakesperean times, the audience would shout at the villain or cheer loudly for the hero. In “Henry V,” the audience reacted to the St. Crispin’s Day speech as if they were the army uniting behind the king.

The English, captained by Henry V, won the battle of Agincourt in 1415.

The English, captained by Henry V, won the battle of Agincourt in 1415.

Part of the appeal of live theater is the shared experience, the group participation in a unique event (even if the play is on a long run, no two performances will ever be the same). Watching a sport is the same, shared experience. During a game, the crowd becomes a single entity, moving and cheering as the “plot” shifts.

Watching an athlete perform to their highest potential is thrilling, in the same way that watching an actor perform. LeBron James is to basketball as Ian McKellen is to the stage. Christiano Ronaldo is as revered on his stage as Audra McDonald is on Broadway. Watching Brazil’s teamwork for Carlos Alberto’s classic goal at the 1970 World Cup is no different from watching an ensemble bring “Les Miserable” to the stage.

And it doesn’t have to be professional. I have seen community theater productions that have moved me to tears, or made me cry with laughter — and I have seen high school productions that have stayed with me for a long time. Conversely, I have seen professional plays that have sucked. But that is also part of the appeal. Whether a good game or a bad game, one never knows what is going to happen.

So back to the World Cup. It is like a one-month fringe festival. Most of the world’s population will tune in at some point for the drama. And watching the world watching provides its own drama. Many people will be in Brazil, but many more gather at parties, bars, town squares, or just to watch on their own.

And at the end there will be cathartic tears for some and unbridled joy for others. And that’s art. Go USA. Go England. Let the play begin.

Time for the Tonys

I have two daughters and one granddaughter. Obviously I am very proud of them and I look forward to seeing them on a regular basis. The fact that they live in Brooklyn, New York, means I also get to see some Broadway shows, which is very handy when Tony time comes around.

The Tony Awards will be presented on Sunday (June 8), and I have actually seen a few of the nominees.

Samuel Barnett, left, and Mark Rylance in "Twelfth Night."

Samuel Barnett, left, and Mark Rylance in “Twelfth Night.”

In the play revival category is the best show I saw all year — “Twelfth Night.” Two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance brought his London production to Broadway for three months beginning in November. The show was performed old-school Elizabethan, that is, it was an all-male cast, with costuming incorporating as close to authentic materials as possible, under candlelit chandeliers. The cast dressed onstage and interacted with the audience while doing so.

Rylance’s Olivia was a comic force, and all the “women” in the play were superb. Samuel Barnett (who performs a short scene here) as Viola was so good, one forgot that it was a man playing a girl pretending to be a boy. Stephen Fry’s Malvolio was spot on (clip here). I have studied the play and seen several versions before, but I can honestly say that I felt as though I had never truly seen Shakespeare before.

Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon Baines Johnson in "All the Way."

Bryan Cranston plays Lyndon Baines Johnson in “All the Way.”

Nominated for best play is “All the Way” with Bryan Cranston playing President Lyndon Baines Johnson (the title comes from the campaign slogan, “All the Way With LBJ”). The play is a policy wonk’s dream. It focuses on LBJ’s first year, a year when he pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act. Johnson was a character who was profane and ruthless, but who was doing the right thing for the right reasons. The large ensemble was amazing and the production’s use of projection for both set and news footage is brilliant (as seen in this trailer).

But ultimately the play belongs to Cranston’s portrayal and he totally delivers. His posture and the way he holds his jaw gives him such a presence that one doesn’t realize he is considerably shorter than LBJ. When he came out for the curtain call, he came out as LBJ, then shook himself and relaxed his face and became Bryan Cranston. It was almost as if it was a CGI effect. He literally changed himself. It was a fascinating glimpse into the actor’s craft.

"A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder."

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.”

Last week I got to see a great new musical, “A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder.” It is nominated for 10 Tonys, but, embarrassingly, I had not heard of it until the nominations came out. It was simply brilliant. Everything from the staging to the casting was spot on, and the songs were fantastic. In an age where most of the musicals seem to be “jukebox musicals” based on pop songs, it is refreshing to see an original score with good “patter” songs.

The entire cast is top notch, and Tony Award-winner Jefferson Mays, who plays eight parts, should be good competition with Neil Patrick Harris’s Hedwig for best actor in a musical (cheapest tickets left for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” last week was $358. Needless to say, that’s a little out of my range, no matter how much I wanted to see it).

I have no idea if any of these will win, but I expect Cranston to get best actor at least and I would be shocked if “Guide” doesn’t pick up best musical.

The awards show airs on CBS.

The Opening Salvo

Writing a blog is something I have planned to do for a while — a long while. Procrastination got the better of me and, frankly, if I didn’t feel I needed to do it as an example for my students, I would probably still be procrastinating now.

It’s not as though I don’t have opinions. And I am constantly frustrated at not being able to review plays or art shows at museums, or opine on the state of the world in some form or other. So it is time.

I teach journalism and a little English at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, where I am the adviser for the University Press student newspaper. I am also a visual artist with a solo show slated for September (the first of many plugs). I act a bit, direct a bit, and I write plays (mainly translating Golden Age comedies with my friend Catalina Castillón). I also edit and write for ISSUE arts magazine, a monthly publication affiliated with The Art Studio, Inc., where I am a tenant artist.

I am a hybrid. I am a native of Brighton, England, but have lived more of my life in Southeast Texas. My mother claims I have a thick Texas accent, but all my Texas friends say I am unmistakably English. So I am neither one thing nor another — or both.

I am a great supporter of the arts in general, and in my community specifically. For years I have had to defend my adopted area from claims that it is boring, that there’s nothing to do. I disagree wholeheartedly. For those who cite the nickname “Boremont” I say look in the mirror. It sometimes requires a bit of digging, but Beaumont, and Southeast Texas in general, has a thriving arts scene, a lot of good local bands, and more good theater all the time.

I shall endeavor to post several times a week to keep my visitors’ attention. I hope it will entertain and inform. Read it or not, but it would be nice if you did.

*Yes, I know the definition of salvo is, “a simultaneous discharge of artillery or other guns in a battle,” but it got your attention.