Theater Review - Presto change-o

The Flying Carpet Theatre Co. summons about a century’s worth of stage wizardry to cast a spell in The Mystery of Chung Ling Soo. Enthralled by everything from sleight-of-hand to escape artistry to post-modern storytelling techniques, the New York-based company uses the tale of a Houdini-era illusionist to spin a hypnotic night of theater. At the height of his fame in 1918, vaudeville superstar Chung Ling Soo (James Chen) performs the risky act “Defying the Bullets” and faces some deadly consequences. Suspicion falls on William “Rob” Robinson (Matthew Seidman), the designer of Chung Ling Soo’s illusions, who narrates the play and explains, via flashback, that things are not what they seem.

A mediocre performer but a genius at mystical stagecraft, Rob sees his floundering career revive after meeting the inscrutable Chung Ling Soo, who, at their first encounter, rises from a seemingly locked trunk. Working with Rob, Chung Ling Soo becomes the toast of the global music hall circuit and even tantalizes Rob’s wife (Jerusha Klemperer), but we increasingly question whether the “celestial showman” even exists.

Mystery displays some genuinely impressive feats of magic, especially the mind-boggling final trick. But the company doesn’t reproduce, say, a Houdini routine in the painstaking way Penn & Teller might. Instead, the five-actor ensemble uses dance, soundtrack and atmospheric description to simulate Chung Ling Soo’s complicated stage illusions, miming everything from cannons to live goldfish. Director/co-writer Adam Koplan so effectively conjures the mood, and Michael McQuilken’s live music proves so exotic and exciting, the play mesmerizes as much as a “real” magic show would.

Flying Carpet grooves on early 20th-century hocus-pocus the way other contemporary performers love burlesque and carnival showmanship. Those old-fashioned, greasepaint-and-sawdust entertainments have, in retrospect, a sense of rawness and danger that feels more authentic than antiseptic, corporate-created pop culture. Whether playfully revealing magical trade secrets or ominously recounting the history of bullet-catching acts, The Mystery of Chung Ling Soo thoroughly enchants its audience and makes even the most jaded spectator as bewitched as a sorcerer’s apprentice.

Flying Carpet Theatre Co. presents The Mystery of Chung Ling Soo through July 29 at 7 Stages Back Space Theater, 1105 Euclid Ave. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. $15-$20. 404-523-7647.