Use Your Illusion
Here's the thing: Magic is awesome.
Trust me, I was a skeptic. I’d always thought of magic as a tragically outdated form of entertainment, one reserved for a kitschy date at The Magic Castle in Hollywood and elderly uncles with a penchant for pulling quarters out of ears. Or of Criss Angel, Mindfreak – he of the bad hair and “levitate above the Luxor” trick, to say nothing of Will Arnett’s character in Arrested Development (“I am an illuuuuusionist!”) It all just seemed so…how do I say...cheesy. And fake.
But to my surprise, I discovered that magic has grown up quite a bit since the days of men with moustaches sawing screaming women in half and busty, bewigged assistants holding cages of doves. The kind of magic that made me a convert is the kind that’s so subtle, so quick, so, well, tricky, that it makes you do double takes. It leads you to gasp with the pleasure of being utterly surprised and slap your thigh in disbelief. It cuts right to the core of your perception of reality. It’s basically a complete and total mindfuck – but in a good way.
It’s not hard to find this magic. You just have to do a little digging. And you have to keep your eyes open. Because one blink and – poof! – you’ll miss it.
My journey into the world of magic begins on a foggy, blustery afternoon in the Inner Sunset. I’m here to meet up with Christian Cagigal, a local magician who has graciously agreed to take me on a tour of Misdirections Magic Shop. Before we head over, Christian gives me a brief rundown on the different kinds of magic, which he calls “the red-headed stepchild of the arts.” There’s old-school parlor and cabaret magic (think doves and vaudeville), street magic, “bad boy magic” (see: Criss Angel), illusionists (sawing people in half, vanishing people), and Christian’s specialty, mentalism (the magic happens to you…in your mind.)
Walking into Misdirections is like walking straight into a nerdy 13-year-old boy’s room: The walls are lined with whoopee cushions, playing cards, coins, dice, how-to books, magic wands, silver rings, handcuffs, DVDs, and other assorted ephemera. And indeed, the clientele of the shop on this day are a smattering of prepubescent boys – one entertains me for a good 15 minutes with the coin-out-of-the-ear, disappearing-into-thin-air trick.
Christian introduces me to the owner of Misdirections, Joe Pon, who’s run the store for the past 15 years. Joe explains that being a good magician is about studying and perfecting the craft; magic is an art form. “Anyone can do magic, but that doesn’t make you a magician,” he says. Storytelling, presentation, and performance are all key components of executing a trick properly. And to illustrate his point, he offers to show me how to do one.
It’s a mentalist trick involving three cards, each with a different color bull’s-eye printed on the front (red, blue, and yellow). He looks deeply into my eyes and taps each card with a green pencil. He tells me to choose a card color but not to tell him. I silently choose yellow.
“Are you sure about that? You can change your mind,” he says, tapping the pencil on each of the cards.
I feel pressure to change my color, but I stick to it. Yellow it is.
“OK, then. If you’re sure, then tell me what color you picked.”
I tell him, and he hands me the pencil. “Turn it over,” he instructs. Printed on the pencil is the phrase “YOU WILL SELECT YELLOW.”
“Holy crap!! How did you DO that?” I exclaim.
“Whoa!” The 13-year-old boy next to me says.
Joe grins. Do I really want to know? Yes, I do. I buy the trick and in seconds it becomes clear how the trick is performed. I’m almost sorry I know. It’s a bit like finding out what you are getting for Christmas before the actual day.
Joe estimates that there are about 30 working magicians in SF, but most of them are corporate magicians – that is, they perform at company functions and kids’ birthday parties. Unfortunately, this means live magic shows can be hard to come by. Luckily, Christian tells me that his limited-run show, Obscura , is playing at the EXIT Theatre in the Tenderloin. Quicker than you can say abracadabra, I am there.
The show takes place on a small stage behind the café area. Christian sits at a table outfitted with a video projector so you can see his hands from above while he does tricks. His brand of magic is what he calls an “intimate spectacle” and blends acting and storytelling with sleight-of-hand card tricks that are truly mind-boggling in their ability to completely confound. I find myself riveted, leaning forward in my chair in suspense. I am spellbound – not to mention completely entertained. Forget bars, and maybe even live music…magic is my new favorite Saturday night. I have to find another act.
I email several magicians – an elusive, mysterious bunch, I discover, after only one of four responds to me – and finally get the tip I am looking for. Had I heard about the magic show that takes place in the basement of Marrakech Moroccan Restaurant every week? Um, no. A quick Google search confirms that the Marrakech Magic Theater takes place every Friday and Sunday evening. I order tickets immediately.
I arrive at Marrakech one hour before the show starts so that I have plenty of time to enjoy drinks in the Sultan’s Oasis lounge and the pre-show entertainment. Magician Peter Morrison greets me warmly and directs me down a dark flight of stairs into the lounge below the restaurant. Though drink specialties are offered from the Far East, I wimp out and order a red wine. No sooner have I sat down on a plush couch in the lounge when Peter strolls up and tells me to pick a card.
I pick my card, look at it, and give it back. He proceeds to quickly shuffle the deck and flip several cards over and turn them back again, all the while looking me straight in the eye and telling me exactly what he’s doing in a low, hypnotic voice. Of course, I know he’s going to pick my card, but I still give a small gasp of surprise when he does.
Peter smiles and calls everyone into the main stage area. For the next hour, he does a variety of card tricks and an astonishing rings performance. The show is billed as “interactive theater,” so every so often he pulls someone onstage and lets them participate in the trick. Though my desire to be a magician’s assistant has only increased, I’m feeling shy and don’t want him to pick me. So naturally, I accidentally knock over my wineglass with my foot as he’s in mid-trick.
The sound of shattering glass fills the tiny auditorium. Wouldn’t you know it, he calls me right up to the stage.
I’m so embarrassed, tipsy, and hot (stage lights!) at this point I can barely focus on the hocus-pocus happening two feet away from me. But before I know it, he’s instructing me to dance to the classic rock that’s being piped in from behind the curtain. All of a sudden, he starts to pull yards and yards and yards of fabric out of his mouth to the utter delight of the audience. He hasn’t really asked me to do anything except dance, so I keep swaying my hips, but after a good minute or so of this I’m starting to feel woozy. He finally finishes pulling the fabric out of his mouth and the audience goes wild. I leave the stage confused and kind of mortified, like Rosanna Arquette in Desperately Seeking Susan when she screws up the dove act.
But that doesn’t stop me from practicing my mind control trick the next day, or the next. Following Christian’s advice, I perform my one-woman, one-trick magic act over and over in the mirror until I’m confident I can convince someone that I can read their mind, and that I am gifted in the ways of deception.
The perfect opportunity to show off my trick arises at a friend’s dinner party the following week. After downing wine to calm my nerves (thank God I don’t break the glass this time), I summon everyone to the kitchen table and ask, “Who in this room would like to have their mind read?” My friend Michael volunteers. I lay out the cards before him and bring out my pencil.
“There are three cards here with three different colors on them,” I say slowly, tapping each card. “I’d like you to think of one of the colors and make a choice. I want you to choose one of the colors.”
Michael nods. “Okay.”
“Have you made your choice?”
“At this point, I would like to give you the opportunity to change your mind. Do you want to change your mind?”
“You have free will. You can change your mind anytime you want.” Tap tap tap. “Do you have your answer?”
“Yes! I do.”
“What is the color you have chosen?”
What, you thought I was going to tell you? A good magician never reveals her secrets. But let’s just say my friends now think I have special powers.
DO IT YOURSELF
The Magic Theater at the Marrakech Restaurant is open on Fridays at 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 6:30 p.m.; tickets are $38 (this doesn’t include drinks). Christian Cagigal’s Obscura will be reappearing at the EXIT Theatre on October 7 through December 18, 2010. Tickets are $15-$25. Any number of magic tricks are available at Misdirections Magic Shop at a variety of different prices; my mind control trick is $12.