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Aging Magician’s Theatrical Sleight of Hand

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Twin Cities-based actor/singer/writer/director Todd O’Dowd shares his perspective on Aging Magican, […]

Photo: Jill Steinberg

Photo: Jill Steinberg

To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, Twin Cities-based actor/singer/writer/director Todd O’Dowd shares his perspective on Aging Magican, which had its world premiere at the Walker last weekend. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!

Going into the McGuire Theater to see Aging Magician, the new opera co-created by Paola Prestini, Rinde Eckert, and Julian Crouch, I had a strong hunch it was going to be good. After all, the creative team is impressive as all get out. Prestini is considered one of the shining lights in modern classical music. Crouch, best known for co-founding Improbable Theatre and co-creating Shockheaded Peter, is a proven director and designer. And I have had a performance crush on Rinde Eckert for a long time; not only for being a hero of modern opera and an amazing performer but also for creating some of the best theatre I’ve seen in my life (including the brilliant And God Created Great Whales). So, as you can see, my expectations were high. What I was not prepared for was an imaginative, delicate, and soaring look into the life and death of an ordinary man that turns into a transcendent experience for him and the audience.

The plot of Aging Magician is as circuitous as it gets. The main plot of the story is about Harold (played by Eckert), a watchmaker who lives a solitary life in his drab studio where he repairs watches, fields calls from his nagging sister, and secretly works on his book, which tells the story of an aging magician who dies before finding an heir for his book of diagrams and secrets. As we see the Aging Magician (or is it Harold?) fighting for his life, we see Harold (or is it the Aging Magician?) on the F train to Coney Island (or is it to his death?) reminiscing about his past, all the while being haunted by the voices of children (played by the Brooklyn Youth Chorus).

This circuitous narrative is part and parcel of Eckert, Crouch, and Prestini’s theme of how time and memories circle back on one another. At one point, Harold laments that clocks are no longer made with gears and hands that move and orbit like planets. So too does the narrative circle back upon itself with references to the planet Neptune, Coney Island, Harold’s father’s death and his mother’s increased Catholicism (in a gorgeous sequence set at a church with the Chorus singing a prophetic bit from the classic Latin requiem mass – “Lacrimosa dis illa / dona eis requiem / Libera Domine”, which translates to “Mournful be that day / Grant them Rest / Deliver me, O God” – calling back to earlier in the opera when the chorus sings similar words in English), and a brief history of the career and death of the early 20th Century magician William Robinson, best known as Chung Ling Soo. Another haunting image that keeps repeating is the image of Harold with his hands up, which is seen in projections, in repeated gestures by the performers, and ultimately in a stage-spanning sculpture that becomes a playable instrument (created by Bang On A Can member Mark Stewart). While the dark themes and imagery could cast a pall on the proceedings, this is far from a dour show. If anything, the magic trick the show is saying is that life is both fragile and strong, depending on the outcome and how you view it.

This fragmented nature of the story gives Eckert and Prestini a chance to take the repeated bits and turn them into musical and textural leitmotivs that are built upon as the opera goes on. Prior to this, I had heard Prestini’s work compared to that of Philip Glass, and I can see it now, especially in how she writes for the string quartet that plays the score (in this case, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble). The other thing that I noticed while watching was how easy the score was for the singers; by that I mean that the Prestini’s score and Eckert’s libretto were written by people who understand how the human voice works as an instrument and built their score accordingly.

It has to be said this is a truly beautiful production; possibly one of the grandest I’ve seen on the McGuire stage. Crouch and his design team of co-scenic designer and costumer Amy Rubin, lighting and projection designer Joshua Higgason, and sound designer Marc Urselli have created a truly unique world, with everything working in perfect clockwork harmony. One of the touches that I was impressed by was that the set pieces and costumes were all black with smudges of light blue, giving the look of chalk drawings or an inverted daguerreotype. The other major defining aspect of the set is the use of paper – the stage is littered with it – as prop (morphed into various shapes, and in a stunning moment, as body of a young boy), projection medium, and both (after a projection of a train on the papers held up by the chorus, they ball it up and hurl it at Harold, singing “Wake Up Harold!”). Crouch and the cast manage to perform some spectacular feats of stage magic and object work (at one point, the cast turns the crumpled up paper into the birds of the “Trick of the 1800 Birds”) and the work is staged with so much sensitivity to Harold and his story that none of the theatrical tricks (and there are a lot of them) never call attention to themselves and – this is crucial in a work that deals with the notion of magic – never pulls you out of the story to marvel at the mechanics of the storytelling.

Of course this story lives and dies on the performers, and Eckert is brilliant as Harold. If the whole point of Aging Magician is finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, then  Eckert literally embodies that point. At first blush, he looks so non-descript in his tan jacket and pants, that were he not seated on center stage in a pool of bright light it would be hard to distinguish him as the center of the tale. But then he opens his mouth, his mighty tenor comes pouring out, and the show is transformed. It’s this dichotomy of heroic voice in an average shell that anchors the opera. He has help, of course, from the brilliant work of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, but it is his beautiful, generous performance that drives this story and keeps the audience with him on Harold’s magical mystery tour.  It’s the kind of work that evokes admirable envy and envious admiration from performers watching the show (including me).

At the end of the day, Aging Magician has many tricks that it plays on its audience. It turns an ordinary man’s life and death into a tale on time’s slippery nature. It uses theatrical sleight of hand to hide the clockwork precision that drives a seemingly intimate tale. And most importantly, it takes everyday people and objects and turns them into something beyond their normal scope in a tale that encompasses us all.

If that’s not magic, I don’t know what is.

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