‘The Illusionists’ aims to amaze

Michael Muckian, Contributing writer

Don’t look away, because the burning string held by the man onstage will suddenly become a live dove. With another flick of the wrist, the dove becomes a pair of doves, and the audience erupts in applause.

How does he do that?

Magicians never reveal their secrets, because that would spoil the illusion of doing the impossible — and spoil the audience’s fun.

Madison audiences’ fun arrives this month in The Illusionists – Live from Broadway, which appears Thanksgiving week at Overture Center for the Arts. The show will reappear just in time for Valentine’s Day at the Milwaukee’s Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

The show’s seven performers offer illusions from comic sleight of hand to death-defying escapes worthy of Wisconsin native Harry Houdini. They combine hard work, consummate skill and a certain show-business panache to make the seemingly impossible possible.

The Illusionists, like other performing artists, succeed because of a lifetime of study, effort and a considerable amount of practice, practice, practice.

Such discipline can produce results that truly amaze. Two of the seven performers in this show took time out to discuss their craft.

To Cloud, it’s all elementary

As a child growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, Colin McLeod was fascinated by the deductive mind of Sherlock Holmes. Now working under the stage name Colin Cloud, he has parlayed that fascination into a career as “The Deductionist” in The Illusionists tour.

“The idea that (Arthur Conan Doyle’s character) could look at someone and know all was appealing,” says Cloud. “I suppose that nudged me in the direction of more sciences, psychology and even hypnosis.”

Cloud began studying forensic investigation at age 15, a time when he also discovered comedy. Combining the two, he began to realize how stage performers could manipulate the emotions of their audiences by better understanding them on both group and individual levels.

“The bug for performing came more from that idea of sharing observations and truths with people, rather than using typical magical deceptions,” Cloud says. “The methods I use are all knowledge-based, so even sharing some of what’s going on with the audience can be more impressive than many magic acts, where knowing how it works puts a dampener on the impact.”

Cloud randomly calls audience members to the stage and then, based on clues, he picks up from his subjects, draws conclusions about them and their lifestyles. It’s something many people could do, he explains, if they wanted to make the effort to observe, memorize and learn things about people and then interpret them in revealing ways.

“The key is to know when to turn it off,” Cloud explains. “I don’t like people feeling too uneasy around me.”

“Some reviewers are convinced I plant people in the audience, and that’s really the highest compliment they can pay me,” he says. “My key is to engage the audience, after which I am merely the conductor allowing them the opportunity to express and share whatever aspects of their life and personality I sense they’re comfortable with.”

Basso was ‘born to escape’

Andrew Basso was a young boy in his hometown of Borgo Valsugana, Italy, when a traveling circus and street magician captured his imagination. The magician made Basso’s mother, an otherwise stern and serious woman, smile.

“She was mesmerized. I had never saw her so happy,” Basso says. “That was a life-changing moment for me and I decided that this is what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

He studied all forms of magic, but took particular interest in the escape illusions practiced by Harry Houdini. He knew early that “escapology” was going to be his career of choice.

“I asked my father to tie me up with ropes so I could practice,” says Basso, who works as “The Escapologist” on The Illusionists tour. “I was tied up for hours because I couldn’t figure out how to escape. Eventually I learned to use a few tools.”

The brashness of youth prompted Basso to pursue the art of escape —an initially cavalier attitude that got him in deep water, literally as well as figuratively.

As part of a competition sponsored by a local television station, he promised to let himself be handcuffed by the local police and locked into a trunk that would be lowered into a lake. His boast won him the top slot in the contest — the only problem was that he had never done the stunt before and had no idea how to do it.

“I picked a date of July 31, which at the time gave me six months to perfect my escape,” Basso says. “I successfully did the stunt, which got a lot of press coverage in Italy and effectively launched my career. Now at age 31, I realize just how crazy my promise was.”

Crazy or not, the thought didn’t stop Basso from pursuing other, sometimes dangerous stunts. His signature stunt and the highlight of the current tour is Houdini’s own “Water Torture Cell Escape.”

In the original version of the trick, Houdini’s hands and feet were shackled and had himself lowered headfirst into a glass-sided, water-filled box the size and shape of an overlarge coffin. A curtain would be drawn in front of the cell and Houdini’s job was to escape the cell before he drowned.

Basso performs the very same trick. The only difference is that there is no curtain and he makes his escape in full view of the audience.

Training for such an escape is a physical challenge that requires a great deal of strength and agility training. It also requires holding your breath for an extended period. Basso’s current duration is eight minutes in an unstressed supine position and 2 1/2 minutes to three minutes while hanging upside down underwater.

If the escape fails to occur in that time frame, Basso says, the consequences could be fatal. For that reason, his study of the psychology of fear was another element of his training. He also practices breathing techniques and meditation that allow him to get into the “zone” before performing each trick.

Assuming all goes well, a soaking-wet Basso will stand before the audience’s thunderous applause as the curtain comes down on the show’s first half.

Escape accomplished, he may try to visit the Houdini exhibit at the Museum at the Castle in Appleton, the town where the famous magician grew up as Erich Weiss.

Basso says it’s the least he can do for the man whose work inspired a career that no doubt still makes his mother smile.

On Stage

The Illusionists – Live from Broadway runs Nov. 22–27 at Overture Center for the Arts, 201 State St., Madison. Tickets are $40–$95 and can be purchased by calling the box office at 608-258-4141 or online at overture.org. The show runs Feb. 14–19 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St., Milwaukee. Tickets go on sale Dec. 9 and may be purchased by calling 414-273-7206 or online at marcuscenter.org.