The Wooden Magnificents Disappoints at the Arsht

The Magnificents, like many of the House Theatre of Chicago's productions, is driven by its transformational set design, drop-down projection screen, and impressive aerial showmanship. The term "dog-and-pony show" applies, though in this case the live animals onstage are a rabbit and a parakeet.

For a show about magic, there are no surprises, at least on a storytelling level.

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What's missing is drama, the fundamental ingredient that makes live theater essential. The show's organic elements, like its script and performances, fall so far short of the synthetic spectacle that you wish the House would dispense with them altogether and simply give audiences a magic show.

This is, at first, exactly what The Magnificents is. Originally produced in 2007 by the innovative Chicago troupe and currently presented as part of the Arsht Center's Theater Up Close series, The Magnificents is illusionist Dennis Watkins' followup to his own magic-theater hybrid, Death and Harry Houdini. That was another case of razzle-dazzle overshadowing narrative depth. Only this time, Watkins pays homage not to the most elite magic man in human history but to a more Barnumesque archetype: the scrappy tent-show magician of the early 20th Century, performing tricks for a traveling circus.

The Magnificents begins with a show within a show: Magnificent, as Watkins' character is known, performs tricks from multiple magic disciplines, many aided by audience volunteers, while his team of warm-up acts adds to the wistful ambiance: Chase, a rubbery clown with a fake nose (Michael E. Smith); Harley, a buff strongman (one-name actor Adeoye); Honeydew, a European aerialist (Lucy Carapetyan); and Rosie, Magnificent's wife and Latin dancer (Brenda Arellano), who communicates entirely in Spanish. The show is eventually disrupted by a homeless thief, referred to simply as the Boy (Chris Mathews), whom the team takes under its wing, to the initial chagrin of Magnificent.

What follows is a bare-bones story the worst weatherman could forecast weeks away: The first time Watkins emits a theatrical cough, we know that Magnificent's days are numbered and that the Boy, filthy and green though he seems, will become his protégé and replacement.

Watkins conceived this tale shortly after the death of his grandfather, and it's clear its confrontation of mortality is deeply personal. But that doesn't make the follow-through feel any less slack. For a show about magic, there are no surprises, at least on a storytelling level. The Magnificents proceeds dutifully toward the inevitable.

Part of the problem is that the actors fail to convince us of the play's emotional core. They're always "acting," even when they're not performing; Adeoye's strongman is always an agitated volcano, Arellano's inherent language barrier prevents any connection to English-only audiences, and Mathews is little more than a mute sponge waiting to be watered by others. Watkins imbues every word with the stentorian rasp of the perpetual performer. All of them are one-note cutouts lacking any semblance of character shading. Only Smith is gifted with a moment of emotional nakedness, but it's a polite breakdown, broached and then quickly resolved, lest we begin to feel too uncomfortable.

Which isn't to say the show is a bore. Director Nathan Allen paces the play like a silent-film comedy, so even the pedestrian business of setting a table for dinner becomes a choreographic showcase of vintage slapstick. The Magnificents revels in nostalgia for the populist variety shows of a bygone era, and Allen is its vaudeville impresario, finding narrative justification for Carapetyan's sinuous, silk-aided acrobatics as well as Smith's clowning.

He gets plenty of help from the House Theatre's crack tech team. Lee Keenan's set — from the low-hanging moon and the tent strands pinned to the Carnival Theater ceiling to the central truck doubling as a stage — is spot-on. Jeff Kelley's sound design captures the ambient buzz of nocturnal nature, the wheezy rumble of the Magnificents' caravan, and the monaural crackle of the show's musical selections, which all seem piped from an antique Victrola. Keenan also handles the show's lighting, ensuring that we see only what we're supposed to see — essential in a show composed of so much magic.

The illusions remain the play's primary distinction, asking for and receiving our rapt attention and sending occasional spikes of life into its flatlining plot. They function at first like great songs in an otherwise banal musical — diverting us momentarily from the wooden dialogue. In Act II, the tricks become narrative markers of Magnificent's creeping decline, an artistic gamble that, to the show's credit, mostly pays off.

The magic runs the gamut from close-up card tricks to mentalism, from sleight-of-hand wizardry to telekinesis and disappearing objects. All are well performed, mostly by Watkins, though few will stump magic aficionados. Watkins draws from a familiar trough of durable routines involving cups and balls, Stodare eggs, false card shuffling, and blades in boxes; the show is a skillful survey of Magic 101.

Patient audiences will be treated, finally, to a trick they've all been waiting for — a miraculous grand illusion that, for once, lives up to the show's title. It's just too bad it takes two hours and 15 minutes to get there.