Magician David Ben caused quite a stir at last summer's Shaw Festival, where his lunchtime sleight-of-hand show, The Conjurer, was so successful that it was expanded into a full-length, one-night only production that sold out immediately and was dubbed "the runaway hit" of the festival.
Now, the show, directed by veteran broadcaster Patrick Watson (known to U.S. audiences for his hosting duties on TV's Live from Lincoln Center in the '80s) is back for the holidays, this time in the intimate 300-seat theatre of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
And for those who want to supplement their Christmas Carols or Nutcrackers, this is a holiday entertainment with a definite British flavor, a cousin to the holiday pantomimes or music hall shows of an earlier age.
The Conjuror is set in London in 1909, specifically in the Egyptian flavored St. George's Hall. In the course of an hour and a half, Ben performs the "greatest hits" of magic that one might have seen in London at the turn of the century: "Floating Ball," "Egg Bag," "Bill in Cigarette," "Linking Rings" and the quintessential "Chair Suspension," which one critic described as akin to "a balancing act in the circus, [with] the tension broken when a board slips from under one of the chairs," eliciting gasps from the audience.
Ben, 36 and a graduate of the University of Toronto, the University of Western Ontario and the London School of Economics, worked for a time as a tax lawyer -- but retired from law in 1990 to pursue his passion for the art of magic. His influences include Ricky Jay and Ed Marlo (who wrote the Revolutionary Card Technique series of books), and he is an avowed fan of Mike Caveney's "Magical Pro-Files" series of biographies on magicians. In a recent interview Ben described his Conjurer character as "a brash young colonial guy from Canada who's breaking into the British magic scene in 1909 . . . a man who is really in love with his own skills and loves to demonstrate them in interaction with the audience."
Director Watson, who co-wrote the piece with Ben (and inserted just the right amount of "breathers" between each magic bit to give the audience enough time to digest what they have seen) views himself as "a technician" whose job it is to make the play "work best on the stage."
When asked about the directorial advice he had given to Ben, Watson responded quite simply, "To listen to me, to slow down, and to not step on his own laughs."
It seems that magic -- if it's done well -- really is just another kind of theatre.
The Conjurer plays through the holiday season and on into the new year (at present there is no set closing date, although there is talk of bringing the show to New York City in 1998) at the Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queens Park in Toronto. For tickets, call (416) 870-8000.
--By Rebecca Paller