published Wednesday, October 2, 2019
Watson’s monthly cabaret magic show at Checkered Past Winery, in the wonderfully funky South Side on Lamar’s underground space, has just enough staging to be lively. Lacking the smoke-and-mirrors machinery of stage magic shows, instead the focus is on a man and his hyper-speedy hands.
Too many magic shows lurch from trick to illusion over and again. They try to raise audience energy with bombast and loud music. Watson’s show is more like a one-man-show with long interludes of wildly unpredictable magic. His down-to-earth likability is uncommon in magicians.
Watson weaves in anecdotes about his childhood in Australia: being awed at his grandfather’s presentation of a new magic trick every holiday season; hawking his magic wares in the front yard for 50¢; and ramping up to $1 for “time-machine rides” using a colander and jumper cables.
A theatrical peak is when Watson slips into the persona of Bill Robicheaux, a street magician Watson encountered as a teenager when his family moved to New Orleans. Decked in Robicheaux’s trademark red fedora, he spins an entirely charming magic-infused monologue of jive-talking patter.
A Whitman’s Sampler of Magic
A classic prestidigitator, Watson executes a myriad of variations on the classic shell game, much of it under close-up camera scrutiny: How does the object disappear and how does it reappear somewhere else? A flamboyant reveal wows the crowd, like when a previously marked card or dollar emerges from an impossible place like an intact orange.
In the show’s array of magic, there are illusions like transforming an object from one form to another and making objects appear to defy gravity. Objects pass through substantial obstacles unharmed. Others are destroyed and restored. Instantaneous costume changes are uncommon in cabaret magic, yet he does it twice, including his shoes. He even does a long salt pour ala Fred Kaps style.
Sure, such sleight-of-hand manipulations may require trick gear and rely on distracting the audience’s attention. But it takes thousands of hours of practice to execute them effortlessly in front of a crowd, some of who would love to see them fail.
Plus the magician must do it wittily, involving the audience with humor. Watson is a pro at that, with clever techniques to extract stage volunteers from the back of the room. But watch how Watson uses jokes and quips like entertainment smoke bombs to cover his magic-trick tracks.
Watson’s offbeat humor is delivered with nary a bit of snark or sneer, no embarrassments at someone’s expense. The refined slapstick is almost balletic. The comedy is literate and intelligent, clean with the slightest whiff of innuendo.
Only 45 tickets are sold per performance, so the feel is intimate. Checkered Past Winery’s food is perfectly poised light Italian fare served in small-plate doses that unfold throughout the evening. The wine flights are fabulous. It’s a perfect date night — dinner theater, 21st-century style.
Whose Reality Is This?
One of Watson’s shticks is eschewing the traditional comely magician’s assistant for an Alexa-type character embodied in his iPad, always prominently displayed on stage. We’re all lost in our devices, right?
The iPad is more participatory than just displaying tableside magic via camera feed to everyone in the room. Watson interacts with the iPad image on stage and the object yards away responds, sometimes loudly. Damn fine stuff.
But woven into the tricks are asides on the cyber age, how technology’s limitless dazzle desensitizes us to the idea of magic. What is impossible when everything is possible — not just technology but relationships, careers, politics, and social mores?
If your only thought after a show is “How did he do that?” Watson feels that he didn’t achieve his goal: seducing you to believe in magic in its entirety. To embrace possibility and openness, aspiring — as the Red Queen counseled Alice — to “believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”