Tricks are What a Whore Does for Money

Bloggified by Jake on Saturday, March 21, 2009

Being a magician in 2009 isn't easy. The General Social Survey's preliminary 2008 data showed more Americans than ever in previous polling claim no religious affiliation and the number of people with a lack of confidence in religion has doubled since twenty years ago. If people are skeptical about God, you can imagine how they feel about a guy cutting a lady in half or pulling a rabbit from a hat.

Much like professional wrestlers became "sports entertainers," many professional magicians prefer the title of "illusionist," both name changes serving largely to shut up detractors who cry, "Fake!" Instead of convincing you that I have a power greater than your own that allows me to materialize a coin within your ear, I ask you to appreciate my skill at hiding a coin in my hand even under close inspection and creating the illusion that I am withdrawing it from your ear.

This skepticism and unspoken agreement poses a challenge for anyone trying to produce a new Las Vegas magic show. If nothing else, the producers of Luxor's "Believe" deserve some credit for creating something unique. While other casinos were content to draw an idea from the well of "over the hill singer with huge Midwestern housewife/gay man following" (i.e Cher, Celine Dion, Bette Middler), "comedian who peaked during the comedy boom of the late 80's/early 90's" (i.e. Rita Rudner, Carrot Top, George Wallace, Bobby Slayton, Louie Anderson), "the 'most erotic topless revue on the strip' that is only slightly less erotic than a teen sex comedy and pales in comparison to anything you'd see on Cinemax after 11PM" (i.e. Fantasy, Crazy Horse, Folies Bergere, Thunder from Down Under), "famous magician" (i.e. Penn & Teller, Lance Burton, Amazing Johnathan, Steve Wyrick), and "get Cirque du Soleil to do that weird French Canadian stuff they do" (i.e. every other show on the strip).

Instead, the producers came back from that well with two of those ideas, bringing together Criss Angel, one of the hottest commodities in magic today thanks to his A&E show "Mindfreak," and Cirque du Soleil's bizarre Québécois homoeroticism.

Unfortunately, while the combination could have made for a groundbreaking show, instead the whole is worth significantly less than the sum of it's parts. In trying to be both magic show and Cirque du Soleil, Believe winds up not really doing either very well.

The show begins with a troupe of four clowny assistants wandering among the crowd doing pantomime comedy bits and speaking to each other a language of strange noises. They get up on the stage and introduce Criss, but he doesn't come out. So they scamper around and do more slapstick antics, then introduce Criss again, only this time one of the clowns comes out with a bandanna on his head and pretends to be Criss Angel, performing some bad magic tricks that backfire on him for laughs. It's an amusing sequence, but lasts about three times longer than it should.

Finally, Criss Angel comes out and the mood shifts to something more akin to a rock concert. Girls are screaming how much they love him while the Mindfreak theme (and I'm guessing canned audience noise) blasts over the speakers and a montage of scenes from the show plays on the full stage video screen. Criss descends to the stage from the rafters and jumps around telling everyone how crazy tonight is going to be. The whole time, he's being followed by a woman with a camera and the live feed is being broadcast on the video screen. He does a couple of effects, then gets into an argument with the camerawoman, who storms off stage. He calls her a bitch and implies she's on her period.

Then things shift gears and the question of what Believe is supposed to be--magic show or play--arises. During his next effect, things go wrong. Criss gets hurt, though it's obviously staged. I say that not to be one of the aforementioned detractors who cries, "Fake!" Rather, the entire scene plays out with strange lighting, sound, and video effects--including a sequence that inadvertently exposes how an earlier illusion was done. The clowns rush onto the stage to put him on a stretcher and someone grabs the camera to follow them as they rush to the ambulance. On the big screen we see Criss, covered in third degree burns, then a zoom in to his eye... which then turns into the eye of a rabbit.

The rabbit hops around the video screen until he gets to the edge and a puppet rabbit scurries out from behind the screen, grabs a microphone, and addresses the audience. This transitions into a scene of people wearing scary rabbit masks dancing around and then they're joined by a rabbit version of the "bitch" camerawoman, who joins them in tearing the body of Criss Angel to pieces.

The assistants help rejoin Criss's body parts and revive him in a cloud of smoke that is too thick to see through and hides the dummy of body parts for 10-15 seconds, more than enough time for Criss to climb out from behind the clamp holding the dummy, take it's place, and dump the body parts in the spot from which he emerged.

This is a prefect example of where Believe fails as a magic show. In most magic shows, when someone flies, they make a point of telling you there are no wires and trying to prove there are no wires. We're all familiar enough with special effects to know wires are used in film, TV, and on stage to make people fly. If you go see Peter Pan, you don't expect proof that Peter is defying gravity. You accept that a wired harness is necessary. The majority of Believe's are pulled off with what seems to be an expectation of this same attitude.

When Criss flies during a scene with doves, he steps into the background and some dancers bring him wings. He flaps them, floats upward, and hovers about ten feet off the stage. Clearly, he's hooked to wires. I struggled as I watched this kind of thing occur over and over, unsure if I was supposed to be viewing Believe as a play or a magic show. If the former, the obviousness of some of the effects was forgivable, but if the latter, then it was a poor performance.

Understand, the effects were performed smoothly and professionally, but the "how did he do that?" factor was all but gone. Clowns dress him in an awkwardly bulky suit before he begins producing a dozen white doves from nowhere. We are shown a trap door in the middle of the stage on several occasions, then are supposed to forget we saw them when people vanish from those same spots later. Criss walks down a vertical wall, then is hugged by his assistants who are clearly removing the wires from his back.

Given all this, I became convinced I was supposed to be viewing Believe as a play rather than as a magic show. None of the magic was particularly innovative--Theodore Anneman was performing the second effect in the show back in the 1930's and was able to pull it off without the help of four French Canadian assistants--and Criss is a student of magic who certainly knew he was using tried and true effects that have been part of the business for decades. I suspected his goal was to use traditional, familiar effects to move the show along, similar to the idea of building an entire play around ABBA songs that viewers are familiar with. Since we already know how magicians saw a woman in half, we don't question how they cut Criss in half, we are just supposed to question why.

And that brings us to how Believe fails as a play. Ryan, whose obsession with the rabbit on the poster advertising the show is the sole reason I was able to go see it, put it succinctly. The show has no plot, only plot elements. First, it's a "Mindfreak" review with Criss promoting the show and recreating effects from it. Then its a comedy about rabbits being mistreated by magicians. Then its a freaky, Tim Burton-esque dance number. Criss dies three times by the end of the show. Giant moles attack Criss and his assistants, then challenge them to a dance contest. Then the moles, who'd already replaced the rabbits, are replaced by a contingent of raven-headed people and some S&M gimps with tufts of red hair that Ryan astutely pointed out appeared to have been stolen from The Wiz costume remnants. The camerawoman keeps showing up as their leader, but it's never clear if they want to kill Criss or just make him miserable. Out of nowhere, Criss announces he getting married, but his wife is killed by the camerawoman and he is sawed in half. Is the whole thing a dream as Criss is on the verge of death after the accident? Or is it taking place in some hellish afterlife? If so, why does Criss come out and break character two or three times to crack wise, make dick jokes, and ad-lib badly?

None of it makes any sense from scene to scene and the Cirque du Soleil performers are little more than dancers. There aren't contortionists or people flipping over one another or any of the other spectacular physical feats that made it a Vegas powerhouse. There is one part where a woman twists herself in what appears to be medical tubing suspended from the sky, but that's the only uniquely Cirque thing I can point to.

It's been two days since I saw Believe and I'm still not sure what I think. I know it was flawed, but I'm still not sure whether it's a flawed play or a flawed magic show. Unfortunately, it seems the producers' goal of combining the best elements of both genres instead compounded the problems of each.

That said, I'd still go see it 100 times out of 100 if I had to choose between it and Fantasy.

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