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H.M.S. Pinny, Guy Hollingworth and an Obtuse Owl

August 8, 2011

A weekend of motley cultural pleasures, which I'd like to summarize for you:

1. Lamplighters' H.M.S. Pinafore at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: Having been blown away by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of The Pirates of Penzance at Ashland the previous weekend, I decided to check out the latest Gilbert & Sullivan outing -- H.M.S. Pinafore -- by the Bay Area's own Lamplighters' company. The production was competently performed by a strong-singing and fleet-footed cast. The orchestra's playing was lively and the entire production was slick. But having seen how an American company -- OSF -- can take the musty, oh-so-British Gilbert & Sullivan format and make it seem fresh and exciting to U.S. audiences today, Lamplighters' stodgily faithful take on HMS Pinny (which isn't as incisive, clever or musically interesting a work as Pirates anyway) seems all the more dull in comparison. Also, I don't like the company's use of surtitles. The singers articulate the English text very well. We should be tuning our ears carefully to their performances to catch the brilliant nuances of the text, not dividing our attention between the stage and the screen above it. Having said that, I'm guessing that the company offers surtitles in part to assist the many older members of its audience who perhaps have trouble hearing. I guess this is a mitigating factor -- at the end of the day, people need to be able to understand the language, so if surtitles are absolutely necessary to appease the aging theatre-goers, then I suppose they're a good thing.

2. The Expert at the Card Table at The Eli and Edythe Broad Stage: I'm in LA on assignment right now -- a story about magic for a magazine. To that end, I managed to catch one of the very final performances of British magician Guy Hollingworth's The Expert at the Card Table, a tantalizing play-magic show-lecture about card sharks and the grizzly tale of the strange and schizophrenic real-life trickster, Milton Andrews, who in 1902 penned what is still today considered to be the most authoritative book about card maneuvers ever to have been written. Guy Hollingworth is a bit of a wooden actor. And the script for the production includes some clumsy scenes in which Hollingworth, briefly adopting the mantle of a historical character from his narrative, engages in dialogue with another invisible character. But Milton's story is so darkly compelling, and Hollingworth's detailed explanations and demonstrations of famous card tricks so deft and awe-inspiring, that we can't help fell completely under the performer's spell. Neil Patrick Harris' direction and Hollingworth's self-effacing, personable stage presence also help to forge a magical 90 minutes of stage time.

3. Goings on at The Magic Castle: For my article research, I spent much of yesterday afternoon and evening consorting with magicians at The Magic Castle, ground zero for the magical arts in this country. I'll save most of the important stuff I learned, principally from magician Rob Zabrecky, for my story. But I'd like to say a word here about the taxidermy owl above the bar that's adjacent to the main dining area at the Castle. It is a strange bird. You can ask it questions and it will nod or shake its feathered head in answer. A friendly magician by the name of Lynn (who at one point a propos of nothing, fashioned a tiny poodle for me in five seconds out of a string of fake pearls) told me that the bird once belonged to the legendary 19th century magician Robert-Houdin. It's hard to know whether Lynn was telling the truth or just spinning a yarn. But it's a nice story anyway. Tonight when I go back to The Magic Castle for another evening of reporting, I'll ask the owl himself if Lynn's synopsis of its noble past is true. Mind you, the bird may well not give a hoot.

P.S. Tuesday morning: I revisited the Magic Castle last night and asked the owl himself about his links to Robert-Houdin. He denied them.

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