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ABRACADABRA

Although deeply earnest magicians such as Criss Angel and David Blaine would likely tell you there’s nothing funny about their line of work, the writers of the new magic show/theater performance Elephant Room have apparently found plenty of comedic material to run with. Starring the actor-magician Steve Cuiffo and performance group rainpan 43’s Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford, the show delves into the lives of a trio of mediocre magicians who take their craft much too seriously. When our own Alexis Soloski saw it at the Philly Live Arts Festival in September, she wrote, “Without rendering them the least bit noble, likeable, or attractive, Lyford, Sobelle, and Cuiffo force the audience to applaud these characters.” Paul Lazar directs the hocus-pocus.

Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 & 7 p.m. Starts: March 22. Continues through April 8, 2012

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Bad Magic Is a Good Trick at Philly Live Arts

Do you believe in magic? Just a two-hour bus ride away, the Philly Fringe is conjuring some choice effects. Like our own fringe, this celebration of miscellany also crams the town’s playhouses and public spaces with 200 shows, but it anchors these variable events with a scrupulously curated Live Arts Festival, which showcases a few international productions and the best of Philadelphia’s local crop—Pig Iron, New Paradise Laboratories, Lucidity Suitcase, etc.

Neither Geoff Sobelle nor Trey Lyford hail from the City of Brotherly Love. But they have worked there often enough (with Pig Iron and their own company, rainpan 43) to nearly qualify as native sons. Their previous shows—All Wear Bowlers, Amnesia Curiosa, and Machines, Machines, Machines…—have had little in common, save an efficient and distinct creation of a singular world and some splendid physical comedy.

These qualities materialize in their latest, The Elephant Room, an enchantingly goofy collaboration with Steve Cuiffo, an actor and prestidigitator who works with the Wooster Group. But if you trust the program, none of these men actually appear in the show. Instead, audiences confront the spectacle of three mediocre magicians—Dennis Diamond, Louie Magic, and Daryl Hannah—who seem to have teleported in from a down-market Reno casino circa 1986. You may detect some similarity to Sobelle, Cuiffo, and Lyford beneath the gruesome wigs and false teeth; perhaps that’s just another a illusion.

On a set resembling the sort of basement rec room that leads you to thoughts of Tecate and suicide, the trio work diverse tricks with varying competence. They conjure a beer, fry a couple of eggs, find an innovative way to make a milk moustache. Some of these routines are childishly simple, others implausibly impressive. (All are choreographed to the likes of George Michael, Aerosmith, and Prince.) But the skill level hardly matters. What makes the show so delicious is the fathoms-deep immersion in these characters.

Louie is slothful and sleazy, Dennis is uptight and self-satisfied, Daryl is pathetic, with a grin that should terrify all children and most houseplants. But each boasts an absurd, undeserved self-confidence that makes every aspect of the show—a dismal smoke effect, a sordid dance routine, a flirtatious conversation with the Dalai Lama, the propositioning of female audience members—strangely amazing.

Without rendering them the least bit noble, likeable, or attractive, Lyford, Sobelle, and Cuiffo force the audience to applaud these characters. Nor does the actors’ commitment to these personae end with the curtain call, but that’s a bit of sorcery I won’t reveal. Robert-Houdin, the father of modern magic, said “a magician is an actor playing the role of a magician.” In an evening of less than subtle sleights of hand and flubbed climaxes, that’s one trick these three have nailed.

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A delight in illusions also illuminates The Devil and Mister Punch, a premiere from England’s Improbable Theatre, a company that makes gorgeous, adept, and sometimes rather precious theater. Here, they create a scrumptious miniature playhouse on the stage of the Christ Church Neighborhood House, with at least a dozen doors and windows through which people, puppets, and assorted limbs can emerge. They conspire to tell the story of Mister Punch, a British marionette anti-hero, who has spent the last 350 years beating his wife and baby and defying the forces of the law.

Improbable rounds up the Punch and Judy show’s typical characters and some less common ones, too, such as a talking dog, a marvelous crocodile, and a chorus of performing piglets. What directory Julian Crouch and his corps can conjure from a few bits of cardboard, cloth, and papier mache is a marvel. With these tools, the puppeteers create a 90-minute picaresque in which Mister Punch enjoys a glut of unsavory adventures. And Mister Punch isn’t the only one having a lark. The piece’s lead, creator Julian Crouch, clearly enjoys testing and exploding the limits of puppetry and theatrical representation.

But unlike Shockheaded Peter, another Improbable Theatre show that combined semi-Victorian settings and an unquenchable interest in violence, this play abandons narrative drive less than halfway through its running time and doesn’t recover it until much later. The trappings are gorgeous and the staging innovative, but a host of diffuse and disconnected scenes gnaw away at audience interest. (Even in the cramped and close-seated theater, walkouts persisted throughout.)

As he wields his slapstick, Mister Punch forever shouts his catchphrase, “That’s the way to do it!” But Crouch and company might want to find a way to do it differently.

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LENNY BRUCE LIVES

Think back to our abysmal Snowpocalypse in December and you’ll have an idea of what it was like on February 4, 1961, the night the famously crude provocateur Lenny Bruce had a midnight show at Carnegie Hall. The snow was nearly two feet and rising, winds were at 80 miles per hour, and there was an official ban on driving. But you can’t stop New Yorkers from going after what they want: 2,000 fans made it to the theater to see Bruce give what many consider to be his greatest stream-of-consciousness performance. In honor of the 50th anniversary of that memorable night, the actor and magician Steve Cuiffo will re-create, riff by glorious riff, Lenny Bruce at Carnegie Hall. We hope it snows.

Fri., Feb. 4, 8 p.m.; Sat., Feb. 5, 8 p.m., 2011

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Love, the Magician

The conjurer Harry Houdini once wrote that “what the eyes see and the ears hear, the mind believes.” Houdini’s pronouncement on sleight of hand applies equally to affairs of the heart—an irony not lost on playwright Rinne Groff, whose play Orange Lemon Egg Canary concerns illusions theatrical and romantic. The play begins with a typical magic act. Great (Steve Cuiffo, an actor and magician sometimes billed as the Amazing Russello) strolls among the audience, offering card tricks. With hair as rumpled as his blue tuxedo shirt, Great eventually assumes center stage and launches a well-rehearsed line of patter. “Thanks for coming tonight,” he tells us. “I don’t know what I would have done without you. . . . You do most of the work, you see. That’s my trick; that’s the trick.”

Great may trick us—or, rather, he makes us trick ourselves—but he’s also susceptible to deception. Lulled by flattery, great sex, and self-importance, he takes a shine to gamine waitress Trilby (Aubrey Dollar) and promises to teach her magic. He never credits her own desires and motives, never imagines this Trilby may not need a Svengali. Great also underestimates his former partner China (Laura Kai Chen), now devising a show of her own. Nor can he sense Henrietta, once his grandfather’s assistant, a feather-clad presence who haunts the stage’s margins. Henrietta offers a particularly acerbic take on the magician’s appeal: “Everybody loves to be fooled. Everybody loves to be cheated and misled.”

Of course, if Groff and director Michael Sexton are doing the fooling, there’s much to love. In past works, Groff has thrust herself into other worlds and languages—mathematics, mechanics, air traffic controlling—and she seizes upon the rituals and jargon of magicianship with equal zeal. Yet she never lets her passion for the technical run away with her. She and Sexton ground the heady ideas and elaborate metaphor in the messy world of human emotion, offering a play that makes one think and feel—a hell of a trick.

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Theater

Subtitled Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dirty Bomb, this two-person amalgam of history primer, farce, and magic tricks brings Kubrick’s classic black comedy about thermonuclear apocalypse in line with our present-day terror of abandoned backpacks.

In addition to a loose plot combining workplace liaisons, a mad-bomber scoutmaster, and an alienated teen boosting depleted uranium from his father’s food irradiation plant—after doses equal to “3 million chest X rays,” the food is “super-rad!”—the show includes clips from Dr. Strangelove and the Whitney Houston vehicle The Bodyguard (yielding a visual joke starring lacy panties). Steve Cuiffo performs sleight-of-hand illusions plus the parts of father, son, and madman (sometimes in split costume, the better to dialogue and brawl with himself), and ably resurrects Lenny Bruce—”The war on terror. It’s heavy, man”—to expose the absurdity of the Bush administration’s duct-tape and plastic-tarp fear-mongering. Maggie Hoffman embodies both a coquettish, lovelorn exec and a jaded narrator who lectures the audience about nuclear horrors using a Geiger counter as beat box: “Unfortunately, the song this radiation is singing lasts about 40 million years.” In 75 minutes, the pair make a case for laughter trumping fundamentalism.