Pierre Brault has become a legendary writer /performer of theatrical monologues. In his Portrait of An Unidentified man (directed by Brian Quirt) he plays Elmyr de Hory, the gifted art forger; in his staging of Blood on the Moon, he becomes James Patrick Whelan, the assassin of D’Arcy McGee; more recently in Five O’Clock Bells he became Canadian guitarist Lenny Breau. All these performances testify to Brault’s great talent as a writer, an actor and a mimic.
The resurrection of all these figures also shows to what extent Brault is seriously engaged in staging moments of Canadian history that have not had the attention they deserve. It is not surprising then that this world première of the life of Canadian magician Dai Vernon produced great expectations among the theatre going public in Ottawa. We were, however, sadly disappointed.
This time Brault brought in veteran actor Andy Massingham to play Vernon, while Brault himself portrays the other 19 characters that run through this story of Vernon’s fascinating encounters and his unusual quest for artistic perfection in his own field of magic. There is much material for an interesting play and it is all well suited to the medium of theatre since magicians show their talents precisely by performing in theatrical venues. We are told that the real Vernon avoided public appearances but this show has been conceived as a tribute not only to this man’s talents but also to the theatrical attributes of the performance of magic itself by showing how the figures in his life emerge out of the shadows and into the stage world. .
At the beginning there is Massingham as the 98 year old Dai Vernon, shuffling out on stage while the houselights are still on, sheepishly telling us all to pay close attention because he is going to show us some tricks and tell us his life. The proscenium arch of the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre main stage is all decked out in red velvet curtains that bring us back to prewar times of theatrical magic. The “professor” as he was called in the inner circle of New York Magicians, proceeds to tells us about his life by pulling characters out of a hat as it were, inviting members of the audience up on stage, randomly to pick a card or guess a number.
One of those “random” spectators is, by chance, a nervous little fellow who appears too stressed to be there. It’s Pierre Brault. Brault asks Vernon some embarrassing questions because he too has been reading books about magic. Vernon tells the "anonymous" spectator him to keep quiet and start acting. Can he imitate the voice of his mother, his father, his girlfriend? If so fine, get with it! And thus begins the show and Brault is soon comfortably settlted into his multiple voices which he always does so well.
The anti-stage illusion start of the performance would seem to conflict with the subject matter of the play, which is precisely about creating the most perfect illusions possible. Massingham even had magic coaches to help him with his card tricks abd very quickly, Brault blends into that theatrical space where Vernon moves through a series of short episodic sketches, a collection of memories about the most important moments of his life.
The event is therefore composed of bits of storytelling as well as moments where the actors perform the situations themselves. We see Vernon in his “close up magic acts”, we see Houdini (Brault) doing his spectacular feats of escape artistry that Vernon despised so much. While Vernon himself did not take advantage of his card manipulation talents to gamble for money, he did come into contact with unsavoury characters who taught him all their secrets. He was essentially an artist and an intellectual who liked the challenge and he developed a whole repertory of tricks and secrets that he eventually sold.
His encounter with the huckster Sam at Coney Island was another important moment that had a lot of theatrical possibility. Sam was the one who showed Vernon the ropes in New York and was no doubt one of Brault’s most successful creations of the evening, right down to the accent and the bits of Yiddish thrown in for good measure.
The programme notes outline the story in general, and it is a good thing because the narrative is not necessarily that clear on stage. Brault’s rapid transformations at times need some thinking before we realize where we are and who is talking. It is not the structure that drives The Shadow Cutter but rather Vernon’s character, his relationship with his wife and his obsessive need to find that all elusive “centre deal” card trick which he eventually discovers through some unexpected encounter.
As for the title, Vernon becomes one of America’s most renowned silhouette cutters, an art form known as “Shadow Cutting”, cutting out portraits of people’s profiles on black paper. It was his way of making money in order to avoid doing magic shows in front of an audience. Silhouette Cutting was his escape tactic, to avoid the public performance aspect of his magical world, and it had a great importance in his life. It also becomes the metaphore of the staging which tries to capture the shadowy aspect of these characters who rise out of the past and appear behind the scrims on the Stage of the Irving Greenberg Centre theatre…their irreality is fore grounded in the title.
As a whole however, the play did not hold our interest. In spite of Martin Conboy’s exceptionally beautiful lighting effects that filtered through Beth Kate’s magical use of scrims, mirrors and stage elements, the script and the direction of the play lacked rhythm and tension, and eventually put several people in the audience to sleep. Something went terribly wrong.
The play is clearly not yet ready for a paying audience. More links are needed between some of the sketches, and the morphing from one character to the next sometimes left us wondering where we are and who we are watching. More than that is the weakness in the staging. The interplay between both actors should create more emotional and dramatic tension, and while the confrontations are there, we feel absolutely nothing. There were times when the characters seem to be talking to themselves. Were they thinking about their lines? Even when “the professor” finds the person who can at last explain the “centre deal” that he has been searching for all his life, it’s a high point that leaves us completely indifferent. Neither the director nor the text, exploited the dramatic possibilities of that important moment and Brault as the man who created that strange deal remains delicately in the background so we hardly realize who he is. In spite of the beautiful visuals and the talent of the two actors, we have lost interest in the whole business by the time the mystery of the Centre Deal is solved.
I find it suprising that The Shadow Cutter was developed during a performing arts residency at Banff, as the programme notes tell us, since there appears to be little trace of any “development", unless all the work on the text was forgotten during the rehearsals.
All is not lost however. The material is interesting, the technical design is perfect and the actors are very capable. If the text and the staging go through a new process of on stage work, the show would have some potential. It would be a shame to waste all that fine research. The Shadow Cutter runs until March 27, 2011 at the Irving Greenberg Theatre Centre, 1233 Wellington St. West (at Holland Ave.) To purchase tickets, please visit www.gctc.ca or call the Box Office at 613-236-5196.
Photo: by Andrew Alexander. Pierre Brault and Andy Massingham star in The Shadow CutterThe Shadow