Up-Close Magic — sometimes called Micromagic — is a genre of cards and coins, not smoke and mirrors. It’s an arena where the audience is small, perhaps a dozen, or twenty, and they are watching the performer from mere feet or inches away. There’s a lot of eye contact, audience participation is central to almost every trick, and the magician is basically daring you to figure out what he’s doing and how he’s doing it. Pick a card, show it to everyone, put it back in the deck, someone else shuffle. Is that your card? How did it get in my pocket? Did you ever wonder how the dealer fixes a poker game? Do you believe in psychics? No, me neither. Flash of smile, flourish of wrist, lightning fast cuts. You know you are being fooled, and for once, you love it. You might even dress up a little for it, because a truly gifted magician understands not only how to steal a scene, but how to set one.
Such is the case with the current limited Los Angeles run of Siegfried Tieber’s See/Saw, a charming, classic, intellectual, and frequently hilarious up-close magic show for audiences of about 20 at a time. Hosted in Downtown LA above a speakeasy in the Historic Core, the show reproduces the experience of a secret lair, something a little bit forbidden. Fittingly produced by the secret history explorers of Atlas Obscura, the scene unfolds at what was formerly the office of criminal defense attorney Max Solomon (Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen’s lawyer). Artistic Director Jon Armstrong and Set Designer Angie Lister have created a sparse but elegant tableaux of gold brocade, exposed brick, flickering light, artisanal mixology, and banned books. Cocktail attire is encouraged, and you’ll be happy you did; it reinforces the old-timey frisson of the whole experience. This is the opposite of Las Vegas.
“What is a card shark?” asks Siegfried early in the show, whereupon ensues a meandering conversation with the entire audience about the limits and ethics of belief, magic, mystery, showmanship, and deceit. He suavely deconstructs the complicity in the dynamics of misdirection, candidly shares the dangers of working without a net, rolls up the sleeves on his well-tailored suit, memorizes everyone’s name, and walks the audience through the game with the panache of Roberto Benigni and the bemusement of Terry Gilliam. At times he seems genuinely surprised to be pulling it all off. Over the course of two hours, the tricks become increasingly intricate and the stories more personal, until you are left feeling not that you’ve been made a fool of, but that you’ve made a friend. Perhaps there’s something comforting in a world of secrets and lies to being in on the joke for a change. Perhaps in this world of CGI and grand illusions, there’s something compelling about simple sleight of hand, analog as can be — a guy, a schtick, endless decks of regulation playing cards, clinking cocktail ice, an expanse of black felt, and the genuine thrill of surprise.
Showtimes through October 15:
Thursdays – Sundays: 7pm
Friday Late Show: 10pm
Saturday Matinee: 4pm
Front page photo courtesy of Shana Nys Dambrot
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is LA Editor for Whitehot Magazine and a contributor to KCET’s Artbound, as well as HuffPost, Vice, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake, Artillery, Juxtapoz, ALTA Journal of California, Palm Springs Life, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes loads of essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, and the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange.