Meet the Great Ricky Jay

"For anyone whose notions of magic are bounded on the one side by the rattle and roll of Penn & Teller and on the other by the glitzoramas of David Copperfield, the [Ricky] Jay show will seem highly unconventional, perhaps even radical." -Time

We weren't able to interview the fascinating Ricky Jay, perhaps the world's best-and certainly its most famous-sleight-of-hand artist. The very-much-in-demand Jay is also very reclusive: he granted only one local interview for his 12-night run at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants, which is directed by David Mamet. The journalistic honor was bestowed upon The Orange County Register.

While we can't fault Jay or his people for choosing the publication with the largest circulation in the county, we can certainly blame his taste. Though our much-noticed sex ads are only marginally more provocative than those in the Reg, Jay would like us far more.

But we're not going to let a minor annoyance such as not actually talking to Jay stop us from writing something meaningful about him, namely: (1) although Jay's show involves nothing but the man and a deck of 52 standard playing cards, he's as much an artist as any dancer, actor or musician who has ever stepped onstage, and (2) his act is pure drama, closer to the sacred spring of theater than most standard plays.

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"One of the most compelling characters we will ever meet. Kindly but menacing, low-key but intense, arrogant but courtly, a riveting storyteller with a passion for magical lore . . . [Jay] may be the most magnificent and literate conjuror alive." -Los Angeles Times

Jay has anything but normal interests. He has written books and articles on a vast range of freaks and human oddities, including a terrifying series on people who've staged crucifixion acts. He's one of the foremost historians of magic and other arcane lore, including the history of confidence games and landmark wagers. He has an active film career, appearing in everything from Boogie Nights to The Spanish Prisoner.

But he's best-known for his TV and stage appearances, most notably his one-man show, which has played to sold-out, albeit intimate, audiences on five continents. He does things with playing cards that Should Not Be Possible: he slices watermelons by flinging cards at them; he makes cards levitate; he finds all kinds of right cards in all kinds of strange places. At one party, he asked a pesty guest to pick a card and then flicked all 52 across the room. The card the guest had chosen was found curled inside the neck of a wine bottle.

Now, card tricks are hardly novel in the realm of stage magic. They are, indeed, one of the [ahem] oldest tricks in the book. But there are vast differences between Jay and the legion of standard magician hacks who regurgitate the same tired card tricks. For starters, he doesn't rely on glitz or flash. There are no scantily clad female assistants. No klieg lights. No disappearing airplanes. It's just Jay, a deck of cards and 150 seated audience members (that's the limit on the audience at the sold-out Irvine Barclay run-although up to 15 seats will be made available on each night of the performance). More interesting from a cerebral point of view is Jay's showmanship and the ideas behind his act.

"He maintains a running commentary that steeps each individual trick in a rich context of history, punctuated with period anecdotes, thumbnail sketches of his favorite magicians . . . and mountebanks and descriptions of variations on classic subterfuges over the centuries. . . . Instead of a magician's cloak, he wears an authoritative, invisible mantle of accumulated traditions . . . which he bears with both light irony and courtly respect." -The New York Times

In another era, Jay would have been a riverboat con man, a traveling mountebank, hawking snake oil and fooling the rubes. In this era, he's a skilled showman whose appreciation and knowledge of magic lore and history is obvious. His script ranges from the streetwise slang of a three-card-monte dealer to flamboyant, Shakespeare-tinged interlocution.

"Language is one of the secret weapons of this show, which given the fact that it is staged by Jay's friend David Mamet is not surprising. 'The trend toward overelaborate theater led me to this,' Jay said. 'The kind of thing where people think more about helicopters than actors. The idea of walking onstage with a deck of cards and entertaining for an evening seemed a lovely way to go against the trend.'" -Time

Just as the big Broadway spectacle has captivated the attention (and wallets) of Americans at the expense of theatrical soul and heart, the domain of magic has been hoodwinked by big arena jokes like David Copperfield and Siegfried and Roy. These Vegas-style, bigger-than-life entertainments -emphasizing effect over emotion-are far closer to charlatanry than a guy who stands alone onstage and performs his tricks in the context of centuries of stage magic.

"'Ricky will look into any effect and find the side of it that is inherently magical,' lighting designer Jules Fisher said. 'He doesn't present magic as a challenge, as a matter of "Look, I can make this disappear, and you can't." Rather, he wraps it in a dramatic plot. In many of his tricks, there are stories.'" -The New Yorker

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.

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