Geek Review: Playing the Hand – A Theatrical Magic Experience Presented Through Zoom

Magic, as performance art, has been forced to twist and adapt to the pandemic, with all the necessary social distancing and quarantine demands. Many magicians had to confront the reality of their material being unsuited for the new medium of streamed virtual performances.

Darren Tien and Jerryl Tan, one of Singapore’s working magic duos, have gone back to the drawing board and developed Playing the Hand as a new approach to reach audiences. Directed by playwright and performer Dwayne Lau (The Amazing Celestial Race), Playing the Hand is a live virtual magic show that strives to take advantage of the strengths and potential afforded by this new digital medium.

With Playing the Hand, Darren and Jerryl try to address the main challenge of a virtual magic show – the lack of interactivity and engagement. Magic is a craft that thrives on audiences experiencing the impossible in the moment, of getting them to participate in the tricks.

After all, if the audience isn’t part of the magic, how is the show different from watching David Blaine and Dynamo on YouTube then?

Darren and Jerryl achieve this participatory effect by sending a mystery box to members of the audience. The box would be mailed to the audience members’ address a few days before the performance, a constant source of temptation like an innocuous version of Pandora’s Box.

The instruction on the box is clear – DO NOT OPEN UNTIL INSTRUCTED. This evokes a sense of mystery and anticipation by giving the audience something they can touch and is within their reach, but with an unknown purpose.

As the show progresses, items in the box are incorporated into the tricks so the magic doesn’t get locked behind the screen. The audience gets to have the magic happen in their hands.

This is made even more impressive by the sheer physical distance between the magicians and every single member of the audience. By making the impossible happen to people in different corners of the country all at the same time, Darren and Jerryl turn the core weakness of the virtual medium into a strength.

The selection of tricks is also varied, eye-popping, and often memorable. From turning inedible objects into edible ones and making increasingly impossible vanishes to conjuring things out of thin air in the audience’s own rooms, there is bound to be something that blows everyone’s minds.

A lot of care is put into the visuals. With virtual magic performances, it is easy to get stuck with a single static frame that barely moves an inch throughout the entire show. Perhaps this is due to a misplaced idea of fairness, since a camera cut can be used to handwave so many tricks away, as simply using video editing techniques.

With Playing the Hand, the performers shift camera angles and vary the backdrop at multiple points during the show. This makes the performance visually refreshing, because no ‘scene’ stays long enough to become boring.

The changes in the framing also vary the degree of intimacy between the magicians and the audience. They choose a closer shot, keeping everything important in frame when they want to emphasise fairness. They go for a wider shot when they want to communicate a sense of friendliness and affableness.

After all, the camera lens isn’t the same as the human eye. Playing the Hand doesn’t treat its cameras as an unflinching compromise in lieu of live human eyes, but as a complement. The use of cinematographic techniques serve to elevate the virtual show in a way that just won’t work for a live show.

As far as exploring notions of perception, and presenting stunning moments of impossibility, Playing the Hand does a stellar job.

However, like most magic shows, when it comes to interweaving touching personal vignettes with magic, the moments of vulnerability get subsumed by how impressive the magic is. The stories, the personal, the part speaking to human connection plays second fiddle to the brilliant string of tricks.

For people who enjoy the sharp astonishment magic evokes, or simply appreciate the illusion of the impossible for what they are, Playing the Hand is an entertaining show. It is also another step forward in magic’s evolution within this still-fresh theatrical medium.

Unfortunately, the mystery package was only available to people who purchased their tickets before the end of July. It is still possible to enjoy the show without it, but the experience is undoubtedly suboptimal.

Playing the Hand will run from now till August 15, and tickets can be purchased for S$30. For fans and lovers of magic, the show offers an hour of densely packed magical splendour that could be well worth the price.

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