By Stanford Friedman
The intersection of feminism and magic has never been a particularly promising crossroad for women. Consider the magician’s penchant for sawing ladies in half, or the phrase “turn a trick.” For that matter, the glass ceiling for famous female magicians seems especially impenetrable. Nonetheless, in The Woman Illusion, early-career playwright Piper Rasmussen employs a handful of brief sketches intertwined with nifty bits of prestidigitation in an attempt to turn a declaration into a dove. Unfortunately, for the most part, it is our interest that disappears.
Ms. Rasmussen offers a smart and elegant director’s note in the program, saying, “Without proper acknowledgement, the magic of gender turns on you: it makes you deny your emotions, or makes other people invisible to you…Try to remember times when you consented to disappear…” But little of that elegance and power has found its way to the stage. The first sketch is promising, in the way that one would expect when sitting in the strange and small black box in the basement of Theater for the New City, where the stage is twice as deep as the house. In this bit of wordless weirdness, a woman (Nadia Levin) puts on makeup while, behind her, another woman (Dafna Gottesman) paints a picture of a face on a large sheet of brown paper. The two then tear up the painting because, you know, symbolism.
The best piece of the night, writerly and performance-wise, is a monologue by an ostensibly religious man (Quentin Lee Moore) who uses the bible to justify cheating on his wife. Other sketches have interesting premises but either miss out on the humor, go nowhere or fail to deliver a measurable punch. Waldo (of Where’s Waldo fame, played here by Mr. Moore) is waiting tables when who in the world should walk in but an empowered Carmen Sandiego. But their interaction lacks the slyness one would hope for. A career counselor fails to help an independent client. Two lesbians argue over the direction of their women-power podcast. A young couple work out sexual tension with the girl’s parents hovering somewhere nearby. But in each, the dialog feels flat and the brevity precludes audience investment.
In between scenes, the magician Jackson “Jax” Ridd takes the stage to perform some parlor magic, more often than not pulling volunteers from the audience. The problem here is that Mr. Ridd is really good. He covers all the bases: impossible card tricks, bending spoons with his mind, making an apple appear from nowhere. Wondering about how he got a dollar bill inside an uncut piece of fruit totally distracted me from whatever the playwright was getting at in the following sketch. It’s misdirection in both senses of the term. Also, Mr. Ridd, in suave demeanor and nice suit, delivering the usual magician’s patter, seems quite out of place here, which is possibly the point. But when he manages to steal the show, it’s worrisome. Ms. Rasmussen uses props as bridges between her sketches and the magic. The magician’s blindfold becomes a hair bandana for Ms. Gottesman. A surviving spoon goes on to stir up irritation in the career counselor piece. We are left wishing that Ms. Rasmussen had provided dialog for Mr. Ridd as well, to help bind the production together and strengthen her message. Instead, he can mend only cut up bits of string.
The Woman Illusion – Written and directed by Piper Rasmussen
WITH: Nadia Levin, Dafna Gottesman, Quentin Lee Moore and Jackson Ridd.
Costume Design by Nell Simon; Lighting Design by Christina Tang; Sound Design by Jess Malcolm; Props Designed by: Daphne Liu; Choreography by Smita Sen; Gabriel Caldwell, stage manager. Produced by Four Suits Magic. Presented by Theater for the New City (Crystal Field, Artistic Director) as part of Dream Up Festival 2017. 155 First Avenue, (212) 254-1109, www.dreamupfestival.org. September 14 at 9:00 PM, September 15 at 6:30 PM, September 16 at 5:00 PM, September 17 at 2:00 PM. Running time: 70 minutes