February 23, 2009

Hocus Pocus

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Not too far from the Hogwarts-style dining hall, a different kind of magic was stirring in the halls of Risley. This past weekend, the Risley Theater hosted three performances of “An Evening of Wonder,” a mind reading and magic show presented by Risley’s own stage wizard and psychological illusionist extraordinaire, Jon Tai ’11. And as its name suggests, the show was nothing short of wonderful.
The magic began the moment one set foot in the door, with audience members receiving an individually signed playing card as a ticket, and an index card to fill out and drop in a “Mystery Box.” Once inside the 81-seat black box theater, the audience was treated to nearly two hours of non-stop entertainment and amazement. Upon taking the stage, Tai warmed up the crowd with an opening monologue that showcased not only his charisma, but also his great sense of humor. “My ego is far too large to share the glory,” he announced sarcastically. “I don’t have a scantily-clad assistant to help me out or saw in half, but applications are out front.” As the audience quickly discovered, this part-magic, part-stand-up routine was not your typical birthday party magic act.
Tai explained early on that his show would not be featuring any rabbits pulled out of hats or contrived lighting set-ups to cover his tracks. Instead, the show was more about psychological illusions and mind reading techniques that he claimed were a result of lots of time spent practicing and self-teaching. With the help of his trusty friend Houdini the stuffed wonder dog, Tai randomly chose people from the audience to participate in a variety of tricks, like correctly drawing an image that a volunteer had in her head and telepathically predicting another volunteer’s first date movie. Some of his most impressive tricks were carried out while completely blindfolded by duct tape — a restriction that he explained afforded him heightened access to his other senses and therefore an enhanced ability to perceive even the smallest details. While blindfolded, he was able to successfully label a random object from the audience when placed in his hand, and even more amazingly, to correctly identify each of six people after they had played musical chairs. And as if that weren’t enough, he somehow memorized nearly every card in a deck that had been shuffled several times by the audience in under 15 seconds. Trick after trick, Tai’s magic kept outdoing itself to the enjoyment — and bewilderment — of everyone in the crowd.
The dramatic highlight of the evening came during Tai’s “two knives” trick, in which he used a natural fear of pain to achieve greater concentration, analogous to someone experiencing a slowed-down sense of time during a car accident. After only watching a volunteer walk across the stage, he was able to predict which of two knives (one sharp and one harmless) she would pick. He then asked her to stab him with whichever knife she had a gut inclination to choose, creating an extremely tense moment which culminated with her reluctantly stabbing him with what turned out to be the dull knife. For the icing on the cake, Tai stuck the other knife upright into a block of wood, putting an exclamation on an already mesmerizing trick.
After an exactly 23-second intermission as promised, the show resumed with a number of tricks based on the power of suggestion. “Belief can stop a beating heart,” Tai stated ominously. Using hypnotic-like instructions, he convinced one volunteer into thinking that she was tapped twice on the shoulder and another that Tai’s pulse was gradually slowing to a stop.
For his finale, he constructed an elaborate trick involving several random objects, a mysterious briefcase sealed with “an excessive amount of chains,” and any word picked at random by a volunteer from the audience. By the end of it, Tai revealed that both the word and the object had been written inside the briefcase long before the volunteer had randomly selected each, bringing a dazzled audience to its feet. Met with a standing ovation, Tai bowed humbly and was immediately surrounded by awe-struck friends and audience members. “This was by far one of the best experiences of my life,” Tai said afterward. “I had an incredible amount of fun and it was a genuine joy performing for an equally incredible audience.”
The show was a huge hit, and for good reason. Tai’s incredible stage presence and flair for the dramatics combined for a wildly entertaining show that kept the audience scratching their heads and captivated from start to finish. “He is one of the most talented people I’ve worked with and has a great future in performance,” said Alex Gruhin ’11, who directed the performance. “He’s got genuine gravity. Audiences are really compelled by him.” If you ever run into Jon Tai, be sure to tell him you enjoyed his show. But there’s always a chance he’ll know what you really think …