Escapologist. Weapon Master. Daredevil. Trickster. Manipulator. Inventer. Anti-Conjuror. With their seven skills combined, they are The Illusionists.
Skills not power or magic are what differentiate between magicians and illusionists in this seven-person strong show that originated from the Sydney Opera House in Australia a few years ago, came to Broadway last fall and has stopped at The Bushnell on its nationwide tour.
Meet Andrew Basso, The Escapologist, Ben Blaque, The Weapon Master, Jonathan Goodwin, The Daredevil, Jeff Hobson, The Trickster, Yu Ho-Jin, The Manipulator, Kevin James, The Inventor, and Dan Sperry, The Anti-Conjuror. They aren’t claiming to be wizards and they take away a lot of the smoke and mirrors, but they still leave the audience wondering if they should believe The Illusionists that everything they are seeing is real.
Magic assistants/dancers Amanda Esposito, Todd Hampton, Stephanie Potteiger and Kendrick Samuel bring theatricality and artistry that help weave the acts together into a cohesive show, including a dynamic opening to introduce the illusionists in a dramatic fashion utilizing choreography and music to make it pop. Music in general heightened the anticipation for some of the more dangerous acts.
Some of The Illusionists were featured more than others. Jeff Hobson, The Trickster, served as an emcee of sorts and also had his own acts. His flamboyant persona was not afraid to draw laughs at the expense of disappointing children with popped balloons and at first he came across as arrogant and annoying, but you grew to like him when his biting sarcasm juxtaposed with the hilarity of the situations he created with audience participation heightened the humor. He pushed boundaries, but respectably, cracking jokes with sexual overtones that adults enjoyed and that went right over the heads of children in the audience. His high energy appealed to both the young and adult audience, which was crucial in a family show.
One illusionist all the ladies in the audience probably weren’t sorry to see a lot of was the strapping Jonathan Goodwin, The Daredevil. While his smooth British accent and shirtless muscular physique could have captivated many an audience member for a long period of time without him even doing a stunt, his acts proved quite impressive. He showed the difference in pain tolerance between lying on a bed of nails — which audience assistant, WTNH traffic reporter Teresa Dufour, did without hesitation — and lying on a bed of nail — which he showed was more painful because the literal points of impact are not evenly distributed on the body. I wasn’t worried. He seemed so confident that there was no question he would make it out alive.
I’ll admit that I was expecting more from a daredevil, maybe some fire or an Evil Knievel-like stunt involving fire, but he was entertaining nevertheless and his acts were some of the most pleasing. Taping his mouth shut with a live scorpion inside did make me cringe, especially on behalf of the audience member who had been holding the box that contained it unbeknownst to her, but I was still sure he would be okay. How could The Illusionists promise a week at The Bushnell otherwise? But what is it saying about us as an audience if we want our performers to have the chance of dying during their act? I guess the danger is exhilarating, but no one, hopefully, actually wants to see performers die. Goodwin was still my favorite of The Illusionists. It’s no wonder another shy audience member he called up didn’t want to slap him at his request. You have to see it to understand.
However, one act that literally had the audience, and the illusionist, holding breaths was Italian escape artist Basso’s version of Houdini’s water torture cell escape. Basso takes the act to a whole other level doing the entire water tank escape without a curtain concealing what he’s doing. The audience sees all. The show also uses a live videographer to take the audience close up to the action, utilizing a big screen so that even the back of the audience can see what’s going on. Goodwin built up the suspense beforehand when he told the audience that Basso had to be rescued during the act once when he nearly drowned. Knowing that made me concerned for him. But I had faith he would succeed and he did in just over three minutes, using a paper clip to pick the handcuffs and foot shackle/tank cover binding him, breath-holding abilities and sheer muscle strength to escape. You wonder with every single act what the trick is, but maybe part of the enjoyment is being awestruck by what you see than trying to figure out what you’re not seeing.
He said in an interview with me at NBC Connecticut that he always dreamed of escaping the normality of his Italian hometown to become something great and I’d say he achieved that. That was his only act besides escaping from a straight jacket while hanging upside-down in the opening and I would have liked to see more of him.
Another illusionist featured very little who I would have liked to see more of was Blaque, The Weapon Master. His specialty was crossbow archery, hitting balloons and other objects with precision, managing to avoid hitting the magic assistant holding the targets. A rigged chain reaction of crossbows got stuck in the middle, so his assistant had to manually trigger one of the targets, but the last arrow eventually flew from the final rigged crossbow, piercing the apple over his blindfolded head.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Sperry, The Anti-Conjuror. Looks can be deceiving, especially in a show of illusions! His gothic look is reminiscent of Marilyn Manson and initially terrified me. But when he spoke, his sarcastic personality was very likable as he made jokes about stereotypical magic. Yet, his tricks were grotesque and hard to watch. He swallowed a lifesaver and then stuck floss through his neck, pulling it back out to reveal the whole lifesaver on the string. The most disgusting one was swallowing a quarter with his eye and slitting his arm so he could pull the quarter from the bloody cut.
Award-winning card and object manipulator Ho-Jin was beautiful to watch with his elegance and grace. He seemingly transformed a silk scarf into playing cards, displaying single cards and making them multiply before ultimately turning them back into a scarf. He also seemingly changed the image on the cards toward the end, first to the pictures of the illusionists and ultimately to display the UConn Huskies mascot, playing to the Connecticut crowd.
The Inventor shares the name of Kevin James, the comedian, and I only wished that the comedian Kevin James was who we got. While I thoroughly enjoyed The Inventor’s sweet act at the end, producing snowfall over the audience from a single paper snowflake, his earlier acts were much less captivating than the other illusionists’. They seemed more theatrical than illusions. He did do a rendition of sawing a person in half, but it wasn’t believable like a lot of the other stunts, particularly since they wheeled the person off stage and brought the person back whole, making it seem easy to utilize doubles and contortionists. That being said, I don’t know how he did his acts, but he did have a pleasant demeanor. I did enjoy the futuristic steampunk quality to his scenes and the dress of the other illusionists.
All and all, I wasn’t as awestruck and surprised as I thought I’d be given the buildup to the show in the sense of seeing the unbelievable, but I was impressed by what I saw, enjoyed all the personalities on stage and would recommend it to anyone.