Show Cards and Snowflakes

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The worst character in dramatic literature is the one who can do anything. Imagine a Greek tragedy where the Gods are infallible--with no weaknesses or human traits--or a Rocky movie where the favorite never lets down his guard. Drama depends on the possibility that the mighty can fall.

The greatest feat of magic pulled off in the one-man show, Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants, is that the protagonist is never wrong, he makes no mistakes, and honestly seems to posses powers worthy of Greek legend--yet, the show somehow maintains its dramatic hold on the audience.


Those fortunate enough to have tickets--or get one of the few remaining seats--for this show (running through January 27) will see the curtains open to reveal a Victorian drawing room, which feels so comfortable in the Geffen's intimate Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, that one would swear the new space was built for it alone. Of course, it wasn't. Ricky Jay has been performing 52 Assistants since before the Geffen was even called the Geffen. It opened in 1994, played off-Broadway (where I first saw it in 1998) and here in Los Angeles, in addition to touring all over the world to sellout audiences.

In between LA engagements, Mr. Jay has written a number of books, starred in a good deal of films and television shows and even hosted a radio show on KCRW, which for a while was heard in this very time slot. Because of this, it should be admitted that this station--and this host--are predisposed towards Ricky Jay's unique brand of wizardry.

Still, I can say honestly that when I saw the show eight years ago, with just a passing knowledge of who Ricky Jay was, 52 Assistants held me in a complete state of wonder. Almost a decade later, the same show remains equally captivating. The feats of magic, widely acknowledged as world class, still delight; but a second viewing acts as a reminder of how 52 Assistants (deftly directed by David Mamet) helped expand the one-person show beyond mere monologue. The variety of one-person acts in legitimate theaters today is in large part due to the success and acclaim of 52 Assistants.

But ultimately, a repeat viewing hints that the show does adhere to classical dramatic notions. The mighty do fall in Mr. Jay's theater piece, it's just the mighty laws of reason, gravity, and plain sight that are shown to be fallible by 52 playing cards and one amazingly unbeatable underdog.


In this context, to mention a famed Russian mime who founded his own troupe of clowns and became President of the Academy of Fools might sound like an anecdote from Ricky Jay's act; but no, Slava Polunin is in fact a living artist who's performing only a few minutes walk from the Geffen. Running through this Sunday at UCLA's Royce Hall, Slava's Snowshow, like 52 Assistants, has been performed off-Broadway and around the world since the early 1990's. Instead of the magic of words and conjuring; Snowshow and its clowns employ the magic of sound and spectacle.

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Most of the set-pieces involve simple visual gags set against immense sets and grandiose music. Slava himself plays the main clown, dressed in a baggy yellow smock; and his partners in pantomime all wear green rain coats and hats with flaps that look like airplane propellors. They engage in various bits of tomfoolery and make-believe, but only once does the Snowshow elevate the simple, sublime artistry of clowning. Slava puts one arm into a jacket on a coat rack, and the scene instantly transforms into a farewell between two lovers. This is not a new routine, but it's performed perfectly--and it comes at a point in the show, when we've almost lost touch of the personal amidst the loud flurry of imagery and pranks. As a whole, this work of Slava's is more carnival than theater, but its quieter moments possess enough magic to linger in the memory long after the rest of the Snowshow has melted away.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.