Today I witnessed Neil Patrick Harris and Jonathan Levit in a performance of Jim Steinmeyer's re-creation
of Palingenesia at the magic history conference in Los Angeles.
You go into a gloomy room that holds about fifty people, take seats or standing-room
facing a small set evoking a crude 18th Century operating with a lighted alcove upstage center,
closed off by a sheet. Neil Harris's prominent-boned face is exaggerated by a bit of mad doctor
makeup and complemented by a leather apron. He is sharpening a knife.
In a charmingly menacing way, he greets the audience as though they are a crowd interested in medical
science and, with a flourish of his carving knife, he asks for a volunteer. He picks out Jonathan Levit.
Levit is pale, expressionless, staring, has dark painted circles under his eyes, and is wearing a raincoat.
Harris asks the catatonic Levit for his consent. On receiving no response, Harris tells him to shake his
head if he declines. Levit stares and Harris takes that as assent.
Harris pulls aside the sheet and leads Levit into the alcove. Levit faces the audience. Harris grabs
Levit's left wrist, steps in and for just the shortest instant blocks Levit's body as he slashes with his
knife. When he steps away, he has Levit's severed hand and Levit holds out a stump. Harris drops the hand
into a basket. With light banter about the glory of science, he likewise hacks off the rest of that arm then
the entire other arm and tosses them away. What is left is very odd looking; and it's very hard to see how
Levit could be contorting his arms to achieve the effect.
Harris pulls the sheet-curtain in front of the armless man. Lights from the back cast the shadow of the
torso on the sheet and the arms, in shadow appear to regrow. It's pretty and spooky.
Harris pulls back the curtain to reveal the restored Levit. With further comments about how the momentary
pain of a scientific experiment can lead to wonderful advances for mankind, Harris returns, covers Levit's
head with a burlap bag, slashes, removes the bag, and drops it with a thud into a basket. This is quite
great looking. There's just no way to imagine Levit hiding his head. Then Harris hacks off a leg.
He pulls the curtain closed again and steps to the front of the stage, where he dilates on the glory
In the background, we see the silhouette of Levit regenerating. As Harris lectures, Levit emerges
from the cabinet intact, and with a knife, staggers towards Harris, and raises his knife to stab him.
Blackout with loud heartbeat sound track. The lights come back up and Levit is now wearing the apron
and sharpening the knife. The doors to the room are thrown open and the crowd, like a sideshow tip, exits.
The trick itself is a fascinating long-lost classic, but what made this show rich was the lovely
old-fashioned dialog and Harris-and-Levit's delivery, a nice mix of funny and gothic/grotesque.
When you have a colorful tale and actors who can give it life and reality, then the magic trick -- instead
of being the whole entertainment -- needs only to supply the punch line. You still feel it as a trick.
You still try and figure it out. But the collision of the rational with the romantic can be exceptionally
exciting if the romantic part is fully-imagined and committed-to.