Like any actor or magician or filmmaker or poet, Jay is basically screwing with our perception of reality. But because he accomplishes this with such stripped-down means, he evokes a time when the line between performer and audience wasn't so rigid, so authoritarian. For the Irvine Barclay show, for instance, audience members enter the theater through the south side entrance marked Stage Door (rather than through the front lobby) and take their seats onstage. That sense of commonality between audience and performer is why Jay's act comes closer to ancient theater and performance than anyone else who does what he does. Theater is about ritual and altered states of reality: it's about actors pretending to be other people and playwrights, directors and technicians creating worlds that aren't real. It's been that way since ancient Greeks ingested hallucinogenic mushrooms and danced around a giant phallus. Those celebrations of springtime fertility rites were led by 50 tribal priests, or shamans, men (we suppose) who were believed to have an understanding of the superhuman and had the authority to reveal it to the masses. In that respect, a performer like Jay, who takes his craft so seriously (he would never, ever divulge a secret to any of his tricks) and defies reality by doing things that appear impossible, is a shaman. The ritual he enacts is one of constant bewitchment, straddling the line between fact and fantasy. It's mysterious, imaginative and creative-all those things that theater, art and life should aspire to be.
Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Dr., Irvine, (714) 740-2000. Opens Tues. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m. Through Jan. 9. $40. Most shows are already sold-out, but up to 15 tickets per performance will be available on the day of the show.