Like many kids, I was obsessed with magic. Cheap-o “magic” kits that came in a box, visits to the local magic shop, debates over whether to spend my allowance on that new cool trick or just some fake vomit. When I was growing up, the big names were David Copperfield (cheeseball) and Doug Henning (hippie), so it wasn’t until I was regularly exposed to Paul Daniels’ TV show that I began to think of magic as something actually useful. I never forgot his debunking of carnival games, and every year at the Brooklyn Giglio I end up explaining to someone why they’ll never be able to knock down the pins. Daniels also turned us on to “Laboratory Conditions,” and taught us that much of “magic” is a CON as much as it’s a TRICK. This isn’t kid’s stuff, this is pragmatic knowledge that can help you in your real life: I probably owe Paul Daniels for the ability to conduct drug deals in public without getting busted, or skip out of office jobs to go to the movies without getting canned.
It is this beating heart of mischief that endeared me to “Strange Things,” an evening of “magic, mind-reading, and mutilation performed by Matthew Holtzclaw and Prakash Puru,” (November 4,, 2010 at the P.I.T., returning on December 28) but for those with less of a background in sleight-of-hand or the con arts, you have even more of a reason to go: that creeping chill running up the back of the spine when you see another human being accomplish something that is, quite frankly, impossible.
“Ok, just last week we saw fire eaters and contortionists, so what’s one more impossible?” you might ask. Prakash Puru calling out the Zodiac sign of complete strangers impossible. Though I’m getting ahead of myself.
Onstage, Matthew Holtzclaw and Prakash Puru are both dicks. Now dicks come in all shapes and sizes, and it is their complementary and opposing styles of dickishness that makes them so endearing as dueling hosts. Holtzclaw, a big white guy, dragging a southern drawl, is your classic Peckerwood, in-your-face, aggressive about being smarter than you, and yet almost feels sorry for you, being suckered by such a redneck and all. Puru, on the other hand, brown of complexion and upmarket Brit in accent, is your classic Prick; way smarter, smugger, and smarmier than you, and isn’t going to forget it for a moment. If his nose were longer he would look down it. This style of behavior—or behaviour—works, because, quite simply, we all came here to get fooled. The dynastic duo’s manner of rubbing our faces in it only adds to the joy of humiliation.
Holtzclaw opens up with some basic sleight-of-hand, materializing a live fish out of nowhere. Puru takes over with a card trick that starts as an obvious force—if you don’t know what this means, don’t worry about it. This is one of those shows where the less you know, the better, and the more you know, the better—and slowly becomes a pompous celebration of “you just don’t know where to look.” Puru makes a show of telling us the secret to the trick—not, of course, telling us anything, other than the fact that he can make a card appear anywhere he wants to—while making the card reappear under the goldfish, sitting in plain view on the table. What’s brilliant is that even after we know he’s going to do it, we keep missing it—every time the card appears we’re surprised anew. Later, Holtzclaw took this direction even further with his version of one of the oldest tricks in magic, cups and balls, performed here with teacups and tomatoes. Holtzclaw baffles us for a few minutes, tells us flat-out how the trick is done, showing us the method behind the sleight-of-hand, and then proceeds to blow our fucking minds by doing the trick he just showed us how to do without our being able to spot it. This is metarealism applied to magicianship, and it’s deliciously mindbending.
In a show like this, the audience is half the fun, and the best kick for me was the young guy sitting in the front row who, it seemed, had never been to a magic show before. Every trick elicited huge frightened inhales of breath, and his amazement was contagious. Holtzclaw upped the ante, delivering a monologue about the fear of death and stripping down to tighty whiteys and black dress socks—not hot—making our idea spectator super uncomfortable. If he ever does this act at a burlesque show (and I think he should), Holtzclaw will need to go the full Monty, but in this confined theatre space, with this unsuspecting crowd, he had them so completely unnerved he could have materialized an elephant out of his ass. Instead, he materialized a live mouse—and it didn’t come out of his butt, I asked—which was enough to turn the entire room into a vacuum due to the collective mass inhalation.
Not to be outdone, Puru followed up with the Uri Geller classic, bending a spoon with his mind. This is the kind of thing that will keep you up at night—especially when he had an audience member hold his hand with the spoon in it, the girl watching the spoon turn from point-blank range. CREEPY.
Not afraid of actual tricks, Puru performed a classic blockhead act, and Holtzclaw did some sinus floss—sucking a thread into his throat and pulling it out of his EYE. Truly nasty—and giving the show an even more varied subtext: what is sleight of hand, what is actually happening, and what is truly a con.
And the con comes last, and sends a shiver up the spines of all but the most cynical observer. Puru picks an audience member, asks her to face forward, feet flat, hands on lap, then, “blink.” Puru tells her what her zodiac sign is, and is correct. Stepping it up, Puru picks someone else, asks him to write down a childhood memory, and then tells the audience member the memory, completely spooking the most of the audience. But for the finale, there’s no writing, no bodily contact, no obvious opportunity for subterfuge; Puru just picks someone, asks her to think of a childhood memory, and then starts to slowly describe it to her, telling us all what she’s thinking, leading up to a climax that—I just can’t tell you. Let’s just say that when this story reaches its crescendo, even the most cynical of viewers—me—gets that shivery feeling up the spinal column.
These mentalist acts were introduced as “pragmatic”—the kind of trick that you could actually use in your daily life. And I’m on board. Guessing someone’s zodiac sign might be ho-hum, but sussing people out—at a job interview, when you’re trying to get laid—is what modern life is all about.
Photos ©2010 Melody Mudd. For usage, and performers who would like high rez images, please contact email@example.com.