My Theatre

28 January 2015

“Miracles” & “Magic”

By // Theatre (Toronto)

SONY DSCJesus Christ Superstar (Hart House)
Jesus Christ Superstar is a really gutsy musical. It’s about a human being named Jesus and his friend Judas who embark on a mission to do good in the world only to have things spiral out of control until the PR spin around Jesus is so dangerous that he’s held up as the son of god and ultimately executed. It’s sacrilegious, if that’s a word you’re wont to use, and it’s therefore one of the bravest theatrical creations I can think of. It does, however, have a tendency to go wrong really fast, especially when directors take the very tempting bait to make the story political in a contemporary context. Luke Brown, the director of the long-awaited Hart House production, takes that bait and makes an allegorical cautionary tale into a longing “what if” that makes Jesus the leader of the notably leader-less Occupy Wall Street movement.

Beyond bringing unnecessary politics into the show (did we really have to torture a pro-lifer in the temple?), the choice muddles JCS’s themes (the two movements in question having failed for opposite reasons) and confuses the roles of Pilate and Herod (the latter, in Brown’s best move, gender bent by the brassy Saphire Demitro who struts around treating Jesus insightfully like a piece of man meat). It also distracts from the key relationships that make the show interesting on more than a philosophical level, though this was also a by-product of the uneven casting of Jesus and Judas. The former is a classically trained tenor with just a few vocal weak spots (and the benefit of Paul Nolan’s key “hit the core of the note then rough up the edges” advice that’s going to help him last the whole run without straining his voice with too much faux-rock edge) while the latter is a self-taught pop singer with annunciation problems making his stage debut in one of the hardest roles in the male musical theatre canon (Judas hits about five notes per number that are perilous even for the pros). Neither is a particularly strong actor but David Michael Moote’s training and natural charisma make him a perfect fit for the title role (the looks help, giving his cult a fandom feel in the vein of One Direction or The Beatles, if they weren’t already bigger than Jesus) while his key foil fades behind Claire Hunter’s extremely strong Mary, flashy bit players like Harold Lumilan’s powerhouse Simon and standout ensemble members Vanessa Salazar, Mike Buchanan and Chiano Panth.

The tech at the performance I attended was, at it so often is at Hart House, a disaster (at one point Jesus’ spotlight simply vanished and left him in darkness; I would have appreciated the metaphor if it wasn’t so clearly not on purpose), and I definitely could have done without the literalization of Judas’ inner demons and the unhelpfully precise modernization, but a well-cast Jesus and strong ensemble can take you far in JCS. Unfortunately the play’s heart lies with its most complex character and this Judas is simply overmatched.

David-Ben-Conjuror-4 2The Conjuror (Soulpepper)
David Ben is the magic ambassador. His illusions are classic, his performance style relentlessly oldschool, his approach purist, academic and intense. He approaches magical performance with an eye towards keeping tradition alive rather than updating it for new audiences. In fact, when our staff writer David spoke with Ben last summer, he revealed just how much his work is about his own development as a magician rather than crafting a show for an audience: “I’m interested in exploring different work for my own selfish reasons, historically, I do these things because I think most of these books were written by amateurs who tried to reconstruct what professionals did, because professionals weren’t telling their secrets. So it’s usually the guy in the fifth row whose writing his Magic book. And I’ve discovered that most of the descriptions are wrong. They are on the right path, but it is only by actually physically getting this studio or performance live that you actually understand this. You have to do the work. I have to explore it.”

The result is a show somewhat frustrating for the casual observer (especially if, like me, they have a bad habit of searching for the secrets then cursing any they actually find) but extremely valuable for enthusiasts and scholars and kids who went to magic camp.

As a theatre-goer, I wanted more charm from Ben, more effort to connect with his audience, at the very least an acknowledgment of where he is (his show appears designed to be performed in London, England; there is no other reason I can think of not to change his passing references to a “good English education” and “a writer from the Times” to better suit his venue). I don’t need flash if the effects are good (and some, like the dancing handkerchief, are quite good) but Ben doesn’t seem invested at all in making his audience invest in him.

“The problem”, he says “is we have a lot of people in the world of magic who consider themselves magicians but it’s really their hobby. They hide behind the elegance and beauty of a simple secret. Because we know how some of the most beautiful magic tricks are in essence really simple. But it’s only simple because it’s been distilled over centuries down to it’s essence. So they rely on that as a crutch. There is so much bad magic out there, that I think it is a really tough thing to shake. It’s a tough thing to market”.

Simplistic technique surely harms the reputation of magic as an art form but I would argue that the reason Ben’s approach is a tough thing to market is that it’s so inwardly focused. The audience can’t relate to the research and technical complexity that goes into a trick; all we can see is the effect and the performer who (for lack of a better word) sells the idea that a trick is really “magic”. I see magic at the theatre all the time- people I know personally convince me that they’re someone else; familiar stages are transformed into other worlds; the very space that housed The Conjuror was simultaneously playing host to a series of Dickensian hauntings; in April last year director Albert Schultz turned live actresses into paintings before our very eyes. What I saw in David Ben’s work was technical mastery but he never made me believe in anything.

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