What is a magic show if it has no magic? At first, it’s a cute little skit meant to testify to the power of imagination.
The Magician (Megan Hill) attacks Open’s very first moment with a pure excitement to just be in the space with us, her imaginary audience. She conjures a plastic rose from her hat – only there’s no rose, and yet when she asks if you see it, you do somehow, in your mind’s eye. A few more of these tricks, and suddenly there is a jolt in tone. It is gradually revealed that her tricks are meant to save her girlfriend Jenny, who was attacked in a hate crime. As the Magician traces their five-year relationship and her relationship with her own family, it soon ceases to matter that the tricks aren’t real. They represent real love, real fear, and a real promise that the Magician is trying to keep before it’s too late.
Hill is an incredibly captivating performer, and an actor of her caliber is crucial to elevating the decent script to a level of excellence. Insisting that adult audience members draw an invisible card from an invisible deck, or cradle an imaginary egg with sincere caution, can invite skepticism at best and be downright juvenile at worst. Some of the moments in her and Jenny’s love story also have the potential to be Hallmark-movie-level kitsch as written. The Magician acts as both women when recreating their first meeting – in the Strand Bookstore, where they touch hands while reaching for the same book. After a fight, the Magician apologizes Say Anything-style, trading a boombox blasting “In Your Eyes” for an iPhone playing Tommy Tutone’s “Jenny” instead. Yet, though Hill is all but acting out a love affair with herself, there’s a certain charm in the way she does it that makes the mawkishness melt away.
With a genuine and infectious enthusiasm, she makes her “tricks” truly enjoyable. Then, on a dime, heart-wrenching. Then full of swagger, but as Jenny this time. Then full of anger, as Jenny’s mom. Hill nearly seems to shapeshift between her multiple characters and emotions with remarkable ease.
Although this is a one-woman show, Hill has an unorthodox co-star: the lights. Sarah Johnston’s lighting design is worthy of a credit in itself. Instead of playing off props and set, Hill’s performance is synced with lighting changes that signify her movement through time and spaces ranging from an “egg yolk yellow” apartment to a downtown bar to a hospital room. Aside from Hill herself, the lighting contributes most strongly to the audience’s ability to picture the pantomimed magic unfolding before them. Most lighting design is meant to go unnoticed, only subtly influencing tone and emotional response. In Open, it noticeably works in tandem with Hill to convey shifts in tone and mood – and it works well.
The show attempts to reach extremes of wholesome joy through the Magician’s childishly simple tricks, and it casts them among the other extreme of deep anguish at the difficulties of being unapologetically out and proud. With the technical aspects providing the final push to successful deliverance, Hill fearlessly treads that tricky emotional tightrope. Woven among pantomimed sleights of hand and illusion-free confessions is the Magician’s ultimate daring feat: “baring her soul,” to borrow a phrase, and enthralling the audience with its contents. You could almost call it magic.
So, what is a magic show with no magic? It’s an act of love, and of desperation. It’s a profession of faith in the ordinary magic that sincere words and slight touches and kind acts can hold. It’s a reminder to spread that magic in even the most accepting of places, a call to action against hate. It’s an unexpectedly arresting performance that’s worth attending before your chance disappears.