I had once performed the Suitcase of Wonders in the lobby of HERE back in 2005. It is a wonderful institution that nurtures, as their website states, “innovative hybrid live performance in theatre, dance, music, puppetry, media and visual art.” That same year I appeared at HERE, I also remember seeing, “The Fortune Teller,” an amazing marionette play by Eric Sanko (with music by Danny Elfman). HERE is a small cultural treasure in New York City, and I vow not to let so much time pass again before attending another performance there.
Symphonie Fantastique was truly a sublime joy to behold. We sat in a small darkened theater facing a lighted crushed red velvet curtain measuring only approximately five feet by five feet. This is the kind of scale of theater that I, Smallini, identify with, and enjoy watching. The only other object visible was a Steinway grand piano set off to the side of curtain.
“...an intimate show set to the five movements of Hector Berlioz's 19th century classical composition of the same name. The hour-long Symphonie is performed entirely in a specially constructed water tank. The puppeteers manipulate feathers, glitter, plastics, vinyl, mirrors, slides, dyes, blacklight, overhead projections, air bubbles, latex fishing lures to deliver a concert of forms, shapes and moving colors.”
As Basil Twist, the creator of Symphonie Fantastique, mentioned in the program for the show, it is a challenge to create an abstract puppet show. What would that look like? How would it be experienced? Having seen this performance, I find myself asking the same questions about an abstract magic show. What would that look like? Are all magic shows inherently abstract to begin with because the performance of magic is an inherently abstract experience? When I vanish an elephant, or produce rabbits from a nondescript cabinet, what is that if not abstract live theater? I love that this show is causing me to think along these lines.
Of course, I was reminded of one magic item in particular - the Dancing Hank, performed memorably on stage and on TV by legendary magicians Doug Henning and Blackstone Jr. Magicians, imagine the Dancing Hank performed underwater! An in multiples. Add some well-lighted globs of mylar, and you have a weird, spooky, magically abstract scene. But description really don't do justice to the poetic imagery of Symphonie Fantastique. Or the music.
I cannot imagine this show without the piano virtuosity of Christopher O' Riley. Looking like a twisted musical twin of actor Victor Garber, the silver-haired O’ Riley provided more than just live musical accompaniment to the show. More than once I found myself looking at O’ Riley madly playing the keys, instead of gazing at the water tank. And in between acts, when the curtain was lowered, O’ Riley commenced with some strange silent, acting-type movements. He was like a character out of a David Lynch movie, sometimes grinning disturbingly at the audience, sometimes pantomiming to the air.
Again, I found myself wondering what if a magic show did the same thing? To offer a peek tour backstage immediately after a performance? For some magicians, that would simply be unheard of. Preposterous, they would cry. But would it be, really? The Symphonie Fantastique puppeteers gave the audience a choice, after all. Some did leave right away, without going backstage. I find myself pondering and admiring that artistic choice. So much of what magic is, is forever unseen by the audience. For those that choose to, a peek behind the curtain could enhance the appreciation of the art. But the secrets, magicians will point out. They will be revealed! Secrets over art. Is that a dictum no audience member of a magic show is ever allowed to challenge? Something to think about.