We have a favorite illusion by Dan Sperry, The Anti-Conjuror performing with The Illusionists. Sperry, a mix between a young Alice Cooper and Heath Ledger’s Joker (center in the photo above), takes a piece of thread off a spool, chews and seemingly swallows part of it, leaving one end hanging out of his open mouth. He pushes at his cheek, appearing to nudge the end of the string up toward his eye. Then he pulls the string out of his eye, the end hanging out of his mouth moving up as he does. (This is seriously impressive when you see it.)
That sort of trick is best seen close up, so you might think it's going to be hard to see it when he performs it on stage at Jones Hall during the group's four day run. Actually everyone will have a great view, explains Jeff Hobson, known as The Trickster. "We have big jumbo screens on stage with us. You'll see everything like you're in the front row ... actually, better, like you're on stage standing next to us."
Andrew Basso, called The Escapologist, will no doubt perform his version of Houdini’s famous Water Torture Cell; he’s suspended upside down in a clear box of water and handcuffed. The box is locked shut. Over the course of four minutes underwater, Basso struggles to free himself from his restraints and open the locks on the outside of the box. Every show he breaks out of the box just as people in the audience start to reach for their cell phones to call 911 because they're sure he's not going to make it.
"We've seen it thousands of times and it's still fun for us to watch," Hobson tells us. "We all know what's coming up and so we run over to the stage manager's monitor backstage to watch certain parts of the show because, even for us, it's exciting. Dan does a thing with two doves that I like to watch. Or we'll watch the audience, their reactions to what's happening on stage, see how they're amazed or scared."
We hope Kevin James, known as The Inventor (a sort of mad scientist who invents magic), performs his signature cutting-a-man-in-half trick. James cuts an assistant in half, then places the man’s top half on one table and his bottom half on another. Aw, his legs are hidden inside the fake table, right? Wrong. The mutilated assistant lifts himself up and James runs his hand between him and the table. Still not convinced? James lifts the man’s top half and sets him on a low platform that’s just inches off the stage. The man is given his legs (which are still moving) and rolled off stage while fans are left open-mouthed in astonishment.
We watched video of James performing that trick over and over, looking for a hint, a clue as to how he does it. We zoomed in, went frame-by-frame looking for a shadow, a wire, a string, something, and we never saw a thing. "And you never will," laughs Hobson. "It's magic!"
Speaking of magic, what's the politically correct term to use when referring to what Hobson and the rest of the Illusionists do? Is it magic? Tricks? Illusions? Magic tricks? "It's all sort of the same, isn't it? Tricks suggest that there's a trick to it, a way of fooling people. There's certainly a sleight of hand aspect to some of what we do, especially me and Yu Ho-Jin. And there's an illusion aspect to what we all do. Magic's okay, just to keep it simple."
Being on the road with six other guys, all of which do seemingly impossible things for a living, has got to be interesting, we say to Hobson. And dangerous. Trying to one-up each other with practical jokes when everyone involved is a master magician, things could get serious. "It can get intense," Hobson laughs. "We've all pulled jokes on each other. We all make each other laugh. It's a good group to travel with."
On stage, Hobson's the comedian of the group. Not so off stage, he tells us. "Actually, the guy who can speak the least English is the one who's funniest. [Yu Ho-Jin] came over here and learned English, and somehow he learned all these swear words. He doesn't know they're swear words, though. Well, at least he acts like he doesn't know they're dirty words. He'll stand there, looking sweet and innocent and say something filthy to a complete stranger. Then he looks at all of us like 'what?' It's hilarious."
Adam Trent (the Futurist), Aaron Crow (the Warrior) and 20 assorted assistants round out The Illusionists cast, which is being presented by the Society for the Performing Arts. 7:30 p.m. June 2, 3, 4 and 5; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. June 6. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713-227-4772 or visit spahouston.org. $23 to $78.