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Now and at the Hour

A Darker Side to Magic

“Ever get the feeling that everything you’ve experienced tonight has happened before and will happen again?” That’s the enigmatic question that bookends magician Christian Cagigal’s latest show, “Now and at the Hour.” Cagigal is best known for “The Pandora Experiment", a brilliant solo performance that consistently played to sold-out audiences at the EXIT Theatre’s diminutive yet aptly intimate café in 2007 and 2008. While Cagigal has sacrificed childhood whimsy and ethereal parlor tricks for a more dramatic turn, the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree in his new piece. Clocking in at just over 60 minutes, “Now and at the Hour” volleys around some of the sleight-of-hand tricks, forays into hypnotism, and quietly wry musings that have made Cagigal such a stalwart among local mentalists and illusionists.

What Cagigal’s show boils down to -- amid all the delightful gewgaws (ranging from a metronome to a vintage viewfinder that purports to “see” memories) -- is that you don’t need bells and whistles to manufacture a showstopper. As soon as Cagigal comes stumbling into the theatre with a trunk full of wares and a rolled-up carpet, as well as the tousled bonhomie of an absent-minded professor, it’s obvious that he’s an old-fashioned peddler of intrigues. Unlike other showmen who take up unnecessary bandwidth by plying us with calculable pyrotechnics, Cagigal is the kind of performer whose enchantments sneak up on audiences willing to momentarily shelve a taste for cheap spectacle.

Cagigal has the aura of a peripatetic carnival man -- along with the usual gladhanding persona and conjuring crowd-pleasers, his antics bespeak a certain creepiness albeit the kind that sends alternating shivers of delight and anxiety through the crowd. Smoke machines and dramatic crescendos of music would be out of place in Cagigal’s realm. His is a more attenuated interrogation of the uncanny. In between sight gags and mental gambols, Cagigal creates a loopy yet recognizable narrative that ropes in our feelings about phenomena such as ESP, time travel, déjà vu, and just about anything else meant to arouse the heebie-jeebies. (Cagigal’s claim to be able to see into selected audience members’ memories frequently incites a minor wave of spectators whispering “creepy” under their breaths.)

Early on, Cagigal’s banter with the audience segues into considering the possibility of time travel (which, presumably, would explain his intimate knowledge of audience memories). He relates the concept of time travel back to his childhood experiences with his father -- a mentally ill Vietnam veteran whose own unpredictable tendencies and preoccupation with the unknown colored some of Cagigal’s foundational experiments with magic and escapism.

Using the trope of magic as a vehicle for recapturing a long-lost sense of wonder while rendering our lives with a beauty and mystery that are all too easily suppressed by more quotidian demands is obvious, Cagigal’s introduction of his father into the story complicates such rosy notions. The framework of the schizophrenic father who tantalizes his son with fanciful talk of the unknown (leading Cagigal to attempt to exert control over said unknown with his newfound wizardry, given the errancy and chaos of his home life) marks a sharp departure from the feel-good “Pandora". Cagigal, who punctuates his monologues with awkward pauses and other gestures of discomfort, momentarily takes off his grandstanding guise to reveal both vulnerability and ambivalence. After all, marching fearlessly into the unknown is a piece of cake compared to navigating the vague cartography of mental illness, which can’t be so easily fixed by abracadabra artifice.

In many ways, Cagigal seems to be questioning his own relationship with magic -- and more accurately, the idea of time travel as a way to gain ascendancy over the memories that haunt him (in this case, a lack of understanding for his father’s illness). As he has indicated, “The show is really about how we all time-travel in our minds and how we try to go back to fix the things in the past that we can’t ever fix.”

Gone are the reverberations of childhood wonder and nostalgia that rippled through “Pandora". This isn’t actually objectionable; in fact, I almost wish that Cagigal had taken his sortie into the darker terrain of the psyche one step further. Cagigal has a gentle manner about him (even when he chooses “volunteers” from the audience, he never seeks to outsmart or mortify them); consequently, you certainly don’t expect him to pull the rug out from underneath you, although you may find yourself wishing he would. Now and then, a nervous titter would rise from the crowd as Cagigal spoke candidly of his father’s schizophrenia, but this maneuver into his personal life is given short shrift. We never collectively have time to explore the audience’s revelatory sense of unease with getting the 411 on Cagigal’s father, as it is too quickly spliced with card tricks and other affable stratagems. Here is a missed opportunity that Cagigal could conceivably have exploited to great effect.

Additionally, there is a circularity at work in Cagigal’s show that doesn’t always succeed. His reuse of certain props and the manner in which he manipulates an emotional reaction by making various audience members recurring characters in his plot are both structurally commendable, but can sometimes feel like a case of putting the cart before the horse. Granted, this is a performance that is much more emotionally complex than the seemingly unpremeditated “Pandora" but perhaps because it is more deliberately scripted (given the interludes of personal recollection), it is lacking in the exquisite coincidence that has distinguished some of Cagigal’s previous work. This is not to say that he hasn’t previously employed similar narrative ruses, only that the gimmick feels much more obvious here.

At the same time, as I was watching “Now and at the Hour,” I couldn’t help but feel that I was witnessing a piece remarkable in its ability to cede ultimate interpretive control to the audience (too often, most magicians are not aware of or invested in multi-tiered plots). Cagigal’s unobtrusive charm and quiet insight always make you root for him (and secretly hope that he is, indeed, capable of performing the sorcery he claims to) and suspect you are in the midst of something truly unique. As Cagigal grows his oeuvre, incorporating even more emotional subtlety and making audience reaction an ever more integral ingredient in his routine, I suspect that we will accordingly see more fabulously imagined pieces that will seize on the opportunity to develop his themes. To answer the pivotal question that Cagigal opens and closes his show with—if it’s your first time seeing him live, it’s highly unlikely your experience will be replicated elsewhere.

“Now and at the Hour” plays every Friday and Saturday night, at 8pm, through August 15th. Tickets are $15–$25.