Stage Magic

The Father in Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author innocently asks a theater director, "Isn't it your job to give life onstage to creatures of fantasy?" This question gets at the central theme of Rinne Groff's dramatic comedy Orange Lemon Egg Canary, an entertaining new play about theatrical illusion. Canary is about a small-time magician named Great (Steve Cuiffo) whose illusions mystify audiences and seduce women. The story begins with Great waxing philosophical about the nature of illusion. He suggests that the creation of illusions is merely the fulfillment of the audience's desires. Since he is more of a philanderer than a philosopher, this maxim quickly becomes apparent in the next scene. Here, Great attempts to get rid of his most recent conquest, the attractive young Trilby (Aubrey Dollar), for whom the staged illusion of Great's greatness as a magician is presumably far more than Great, the man, can offer.

Trilby quickly becomes interested in Great's profession. And though Great is interested in her, like any great magician, he never gives away his tricks. Unless the trick he is turning happens to be on his ex-assistant and former lover, Egypt (Laura Kai Chen). The lovely former aide is angry at Great over a fizzled affair and is scarred, both physically and psychologically, from a trick gone awry called the "Hypnotic Balance," which involves balancing the hypnotized assistant on the end of a sword.

Simultaneously, another story develops through separate scenes as another magician's assistant, Henrietta (Emily Swallow), describes the seduction and allure of magic and life on the stage. Slowly, Henrietta reveals that she is more than just any assistant, and her story speaks directly to Trilby and Great.

The narrative has many twists and turns. Some are surprising, others not as much. The best bits come when Great reflects on what makes an illusion. Michael Sexton's direction is at its strongest in a flashback where Great and Egypt hilariously demonstrate how "magic" is made of this illusion—and how illusion is truly in the eyes of the beholder. They do this by tricking a volunteer from the audience, but let the audience in on the trick. The volunteer's expression during this stunt is priceless: she is amazed at what the audience sees as a simple trick, a flick of the wrist.

A major problem, however, comes at the end. Multiple plot lines are presented but are brought together too quickly at the conclusion, when everything is neatly tied up too fast. And, though I don't want to give away too much, the ending depends on a certain degree of serious drama (even after all the comedy) that is undercut by the absurdity and awkward humor of the situation.

Cuiffo as Great is, well, great, at once endearing and slimy. A huckster with a tender spot, he draws the audience into his snares as he does with the women in the play, using his quick smile, flash of the hand, and charmingly drunken manner. Before the play begins, he ambles out into the audience, doing cheap magic tricks and placing his hand ever so innocently on the occasional lady's knee.

Dollar is convincing as the ingénue Trilby, though she is not so successful as the more devious character she is supposed to be later. As Henrietta, Swallow is playful and audacious. Chen, as Egypt, plays the former lover with the utmost contempt, but she seems a little awkward in some of the more tender moments.

Andromache Chalfant's set is simple and utilitarian. The stage is decorated with merely a trunk, a small table, and a chair, but on both sides chairs are strewn about in disarray so that the setting looks like a theater that was destroyed and demolished some time ago. Representing the bygone venue where Great's grandfather (a magician as well) once played, this design produces an appropriately haunting aura.

Ultimately, the case made by the play is that illusion is a process that requires not only the creator of fantasy but also the intended audience, which participates fully in that creation by wanting to see the chimera played out. If the further illusions that Rinne Groff continues to fashion are anything like Orange Lemon Egg Canary, she should have no trouble finding willing partners in creating them.

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