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Marc Salem’s Mind Games

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“Mentalists” have been around for centuries, and there is a rich tradition of performance in the genre, with figures like Uri Geller, The Amazing Kreskin, and Derren Brown among the prominent practitioners. Rasputin was even seen as a practitioner of mentalism, which emphasizes the ability to exert uncanny influence upon others with non-verbal cues. Marc Salem is in this camp, but true to form, prefers the term “purveyor of mental games.”

This is an appropriate distinction, because Mind Games is conspicuously devoid of the usual stage magic trappings: slinky assistants, smoke and mirrors, doves flying out of top hats, and cliché card tricks. The house lights are up for the whole show - everything’s out in the open, and it’s refreshingly low-key. Instead of artfully concealing tricks, he takes a more intriguing tack -- by explaining the basic mystery of how he does things, he makes it that much more mysterious.

Mr. Salem is a gifted expert on reading non-verbal clues, and on finding meaning in the subtle behavioral nuances, like a certain crinkle of the eyes, fluttering of a hand, or split-second diversion of the eyes, that completely avoid the conscious radar of most of us. A former academic with a Ph.D. in psychology, he’s used his skills not only to entertain audiences with amazing feats of “mind reading”, but to train cops for the New York Police Department and agents for the FBI.

The study of non-verbal communication and involuntary physiological responses is growing widely today, in some fascinating directions. One of the more intriguing areas of work is in facial expressions. Working since 1978, Paul Ekman, Wallace V. Friesen, and Joseph C. Hager, researchers at the University of San Francisco, developed a comprehensive system of categorizing every possible combination of expressions on the human face. The Facial Action Coding System is used by researchers, scientists, and technicians in a wide range of fields, including behavioral science, computer animation, and customer research. There also are many other areas of behavioral investigation, including voice analysis, body movement analysis, retinal response, and brain scanning. Many scientists today feel that we may be in the beginning of a kind of golden age of brain research.

Mr. Salem is admittedly fascinated with the mind and its workings, and brings all of this to his show, embodied in his acute perceptions and vast knowledge of behavioral responses. He begins his “warming up” by correctly guessing numbers and number sequences that have been seemingly randomly chosen by audience members. One of his routines is “The Five Liars,” in which five audience members are instructed to make drawings, which are then shuffled, then to lie about whether they are the creators of the drawings. To add to the intrigue, the show’s program notes include a section titled “11 ways to spot a Liar,” which pretty much tells you all you have to know to do just that. Armed with this, you’d think you’d be able to figure out who is lying. I was successful with most of them, but I used different cues to determine the different liars, as I couldn’t see their eyes, or perceive some of the telltale signs I was looking for. The first liar finished her drawing really fast, so since it was the simplest one. It turns out that this is the way Mr. Salem proceeds as well -- he reads multiple cues (emotional, visual, aural, body language) to determine a correct answer, and most of the time only one or two will prove useful.

I found the show refreshing and engaging not only for its lack of flourish and ritual, but because Mr. Salem involves a large number of audience members in the show. After wondering how he correctly guesses the nature of personal effects donated by audience members while completely blindfolded, I realized that during his forays into the audience, he was probably mentally cataloguing every nuance and detail of the people in the center aisles, storing the information for later use. One of the best things about his show is that it gets you to believe that you might actually eventually figure out how the amazing mentalist feats are accomplished (well, maybe one or two of them), if you use your inherent powers of observation, logic, and curiosity. Mr. Salem is fond of saying that his mind games can easily be preformed by “any ten year old with thirty years of experience.”

Marc Salem’s Mind Games
Post Street Theater
450 Post Street, 2nd floor
Through November 19th
Tickets $35-$40; $85, premium seats