Three weeks ago, I wrote about how much my wife and I enjoyed a performance over Zoom by magician Siegfried Tieber. He had a limited audience of just a couple dozen viewers and established a very nice rapport with many of us as he chose people to take part in his tricks and illusions.
Since then, we’ve watched two other online magic performances, neither of which was nearly as good.
The first of those was by Justin Willman, who has his own series on Netflix, “Magic For Humans.” His Zoom show had an audience of well over 400, a size that made it impossible to retain the intimacy Tieber had. Willman also wasn’t nearly as good in working with members of the audience, often choosing very young kids who were more excited to be on camera than to assist him with a card trick or anything else. Every minute he spent with them was off-putting to the rest of us and destroyed any pacing he’d hoped to establish. On top of that, he didn’t do anything new, and because magic relies so much on the element of surprise, a trick repeated the same way loses almost all of its wonder.
It was even worse with the second show, entitled “Two-Headed Dreams,” which we watched Saturday night. Hosted by the magician Zabrecky, this wasn’t the same kind of interactive experience. That would have been fine if we’d gotten what I expected — half a dozen performers pulling off good close-up magic in a fast-paced format. Instead, everything moved as if stuck in molasses, with too much emphasis on mysticism and pure bullshit (“I’m pulling this coin out of a dimension you didn’t even know existed”).
Zabrecky got the most screen time and did one of the slowest acts I’ve ever seen. According to Wikipedia, he is known for “an artful use of elongated pauses.” While that may work on stage, it’s deadly in an online presentation. The other performers included: TruTV star Michael Carbonaro and his husband, Peter Stickles, doing a dual version of the needles-on-a-string trick that wasn’t particularly impressive; Mike Pisciotta, who we saw doing some very clever up-close work as the magical bartender at the Magic Castle last year; and Penn & Teller, whose only contribution was a card-stabbing routine we’d seen them do off-Broadway 35 years ago (which they recently recreated on their “Fool Us” TV show). The rest of the show was filled with non-magical segments that did nothing more than kill time, including two instances of a man playing dirges on a piano, Zabrecky dancing with Liberty Larsen (who also read stories inspired by viewers’ dreams), and someone called Puddles Pity Party singing while dressed as a sad clown. It all added up to one big yawn.
We have also tried to watch two theatrical presentations via Zoom. The first was a version of Beth Henley’s “The Jacksonian,” a play that garnered horrible reviews in New York in 2013, despite an original cast that included Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Bill Pullman, and Glenne Headly. Three of the four returned for this version, with Carol Kane taking over for the late Headly. Recreating a play that hadn’t been well received the first time around is rarely a good idea, and doing it on Zoom, with each performer in their own discrete location, didn’t help. For theater to be effective, the actors must have the chemistry that’s created by sharing the same space. With that an impossibility in this pandemic era, combined with the pauses inherent in the online medium, the play just sat there and never came alive. After a half hour, we bailed out, bored again.
The same factors were at play last week, when we tried to watch the St. Louis Rep’s online staging of “Black Like Me.” Since this update of John Howard Griffin’s 1961 book is a work in progress, I won’t do an official review here, but suffice it to say the experience would likely have been much different if it had been staged in an actual theater. Like “The Jacksonian,” the online version suffered from a lack of interaction due to the non-proximity of the cast, but I’d like to see what the show looks like if it is revived in a true theatrical setting.
So, after our initial success viewing Siegfried Tieber’s production, we’ve gone zero for four with online entertainment. We’re going to give the concept one more chance next month, when we’ll watch another magician, Helder Guimarães. Our hopes for that are a little higher based on recommendations from friends whose opinions we respect but, frankly, it would be hard for his show to be worse than these.