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Stage Light

Old-Time Magic Still Delivers Oohs and Ahhs

September 07, 2000|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There's the old economy and the new economy, and there's old magic and new magic.

New magic is Penn and Teller, who cast an amusedly skeptical eye on the razzmatazz of magic, explaining the tricks while astonishing the audience.

It also may be David Copperfield, if only because he uses television and special effects--tricks of a more advanced sort.

Old magic is found at the Magic Castle in Hollywood, and in low-tech shows that work hard to maintain the sense of wonder that Penn and Teller scoff at.

Old-magic practitioners like Glenn Falkenstein and Frances Willard, who have been doing mind-reading and other types of magic acts for years and whose show "Fireflies--Wizards of Magic" is at the Actors Forum Theatre, do not like Penn and Teller.

This couple's act is several steps away from the carnies of old but deliberately un-hip enough that you'd never imagine them getting their own special on HBO. Indeed, under Shawn Michaels' direction, Bert Hinchman's opener as the "Spirit Guide," complete with a turban and bugged-out eyes, is pure cornball.

Falkenstein himself is your dapper older uncle, impeccable in his tux and always casting a warm eye on the audience. He's sort of magic's answer to Walter Cronkite--the trick artist you can trust.

That's the nub of the fascination with an act like this in the year 2000: The audience mostly knows these are tricks, acts developed and practiced through long and arduous repetition, but nevertheless finds itself amazed at how a blindfolded Falkenstein can exactly retrace an audience member's signature on a chalkboard, or how the elegant Willard, who throughout the show wears a wardrobe of sequined and silk dresses, can know the type of credit card this critic had in his wallet.

Ironically, the Actors Forum previously staged a revival of "The Great Sebastians," which pulled aside the curtain to reveal the tricks of a mind-reading act not unlike Falkenstein-Willard (who first appeared here as a cleverly inserted entr'acte in "The Boy Friend").

Verbal codes, subtle phrases and cues were among the Sebastians' devices, and they may be for this pair as well. It's just that while you watch "Fireflies," you don't think about this very much.

The effect is like what theater audiences unconsciously do all the time, their unstated contract with the artists on stage: Suspend disbelief, and anything is possible. Boys on my aisle were still amazed during intermission that Willard had gotten my credit card right, and as for the man next to me, whose coat was removed and worn by Willard in less than 10 seconds--well, people were a bit too astonished to even ask him what happened.

Still, when Falkenstein brought out what he said was a replica of a small table in Edgar Allen Poe's home and raised it off the ground as if Poe's spirit were in the room, a woman a few rows away could be overheard saying "Magnets."

The skeptics probably have a harder time explaining the closer, the couple's piece de resistance involving a "spirit cabinet" in which Willard is seemingly sent aloft by a ghost. When Willard's father did this act in Louisiana bayou country, crowds would run away screaming in fright.

In 2000 in North Hollywood, the crowd isn't afraid--and may even figure out the trick--but it's still amazed.

*

"Fireflies--Wizards of Magic," 10655 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. (818) 506-0600. $15. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

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