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Review: Aging Magician casts a bleak but beautiful spell at the New Victory Theater

Aging Magician
Photograph: Jill Steinberg

★★★☆☆
There's a disconnect at the heart of Rinde Eckert, Julian Crouch and Paola Prestini's collaboration Aging Magician—although, to its credit, that heart is a passionate one. The trio's nontraditional opera is essentially a bleak monodrama, performed by Eckert, backed by dozens of members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. So, is it for children? Or is it an adult-oriented meditation on death? Those two don't have to be exclusive categories, of course, but it is striking that a work at the city's best children's theater seems so awkward an offering for kids.

Still, as a grown-up, I can say it's a pleasure to hear Eckert's tenor again. His ecstatic 2000 masterwork And God Created Great Whales juxtaposed his weird-inventor-from-central-casting look and soaring voice to often wonderful effect. There, he was a composer racing against his deteriorating mind, trying to finish an opera of Moby-Dick. In Aging Magician, Eckert uses a similar nesting story-structure. Here, he's Harold, a watch-maker with a passion for writing—a lonely man telling a story about the titular stage conjuror.

In its textures, Aging Magician is often quite beautiful. Prestini's compositions (liquid, amelodic phrases) complement Eckert's voice, and director Crouch—one of the great designers working today—makes lovely spectacles out of sheets of paper (which the children hold up to make a projection screen), those same papers crumpled up (which can be made into birds or a man-sized puppet), and, a wire-and-wheels machine-portrait of Harold that fills the entire stage. The children sound wonderful, and it's eerie to hear their piccolo voices singing “Clamp! Clamp! Scalpel!” as a man dies on an operating table.

This musical creep-out happens early, since Harold tells us right away that the magician is at death's door. Librettist-performer Eckert then toggles between Harold, who reminisces about being young, and the magician, who is preoccupied with the loss of his stage secrets. Will he find someone to inherit his illusions? He spots a boy in the street; he decides he's the one. And here, quite early, we hit the text's first serious bump. A kid's show should, ideally, not revolve around a man stalking a child through a market, no matter how much he needs a protégé. The second problem is even more serious. The show consists of an “exploded-view” structure of the magician's death (we examine it from all angles), and so we're essentially always inside the opera's first few moments. Dramatically, the show is therefore intentionally inert—and this, coupled with hypnotic music, makes for an enervating 80 minutes.

The good news is that time does its customary disappearing act in Aging Magician. The bad news is that it does it awful slow.

New Victory Theater (Off Broadway). Music by Paola Prestini. Libretto by Rinde Eckert. Directed by Julian Crouch. With Eckert and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. Running time: 1hr 20mins. No intermission. Through March 12. Click here for tickets.

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