Thursday 22 January 2015

Bullet Catch a fun evening of magic & froth

Background conceits : In an age of rampant terrorism, racketeering drug lords and local gangsters in SUVs all around us, quite possibly a live Beretta 92 handgun on stage at Granville Island aimed straight into the mouth of the lead player is not exactly your first choice for divertissement from the nightly news. But then again, Scot theatricalist Rob Drummond might change your mind in the generous hour of tricks and illusions and stories he tells and performs in Bullet Catch

Drummond is a self-deprecating entertainer who instantly engages the audience's trust. He tells of a certain Victorian magician named William Henderson* who died when the 300-year-old trick known as the "bullet catch" went horribly wrong. The bullet didn't catch in his teeth as it was supposed to nor did he spit it out onto a plate. It killed him dead instead. One Charles Garth was alleged to have been the volunteer audience member who wound up pulling the trigger. In pained letters, Garth tells of his agony at dispatching Henderson quite by accident. He suffers grievous guilt, even wonders whether it was a staged suicide executed as a homicide.

On stage, Drummond invites an audience volunteer to assist him. A diminutive middle-age mom named Katie volunteered. Drummond has Katie read out Garth's letters. And, like Garth, it becomes obvious this local volunteer on the Revue Stage will be the person asked to pull the trigger on Drummond at show's end. (These parallel universe coincidences between Charles and Katie are not lost on the audience, of course : magic feats are nothing without significant foreshadowing and breathy build-up.)

What else, you ask... ? : Along the way to the ultimate trick of the show, other acts of legerdemain and prestidigitation, mind-reading and illusion are performed in the normal manner : Who's got the single white ball, who the two black? Let me guess. (Spot on.) Pick a word from a book, Katie, I'll figure it out. (He did.) Think of a significant event : its substance; when it took place; with whom. The specifics nailed close enough for huzzah's from both Katie and the crowd. Let's us levitate this telephone table together. They do. (Then the audience majority demands to see the "how" it was done. With feigned pain, Drummond demonstrates what stiff wire and light-weight balsam and a tablecloth can do to dupe the masses, self included.) Let's break a beer bottle and then risk slashing our hand on the jagged neck as we smash three of the four mixed-up lunch bags it's hiding under. Imagine. No blood. Katie got it right.

Drummond carries himself not just amiably and pleasantly, it's almost as if he believes in his own tricks, though that's all part of the deception, too. Three outsize signs snitched from Dr. Freud proclaim LOVE, SAVE, and KILL adorn the upstage wall. These three words Freud claimed are the three alternative responses everyone has upon meeting strangers. As Drummond humourously and vernacularly puts it -- "Can I kill it? Can it kill me? If it can't, can I shag it?" These are the background questions he puts forward to advance the night's theme.

Philosophy, anyone ? The superficial Freud bits feed into the somewhat facile "philosophical" questions posed for the night : "Do you believe that free will is just an illusion? Do you believe in anything -- just what's the point of it all? You shouldn't have to talk yourself into believing in faith, God or an afterlife, life is simply what it is," Drummond proposes. Further, it was "existential nihilism", he states, that overtook the earlier god-centric values and gave way to an emerging belief in deterministic fatalism. Sure. Why not. Something had to kill God. Just not sure Bullet Catch really needed this hook.

Still, all of this was but lead-up to the challenge put to volunteer Katie at the end : would she agree to shoot him, on stage, so he could catch the 500 m.p.h. 9x19 mm Parabellum slug between his teeth and not have his head blown off instead...? Katie would theoretically have to act either from "faith" or from some sort of a predetermined choice already made for her. She didn't reveal which she felt was, um, the trigger. Upon "magically" surviving the shot, Drummond proclaims : "There's a point to all of this, and it's that we all need each other."

Production values : Performed as an opener in the 2015 PuSh Festival, Bullet Catch was produced in association with The Arches from Glasgow. Their stage designer Francis Gallop put together a functional magic show set replete with steamer trunk, poster easels, an easy chair and various hidey places. Lighting designer Simon Hayes flipped spots and hi-lites appropriately around the set. The teasing violins selected by sound designer Ross Ramsay were engaging, a nice aural link for all the visuals on stage.

Who gonna like : This is fun stuff not to be taken seriously at all. Rob Drummond ain't no Harry Houdini or even my fictional namesakes, Harry Blackstone pere et fils**. Drummond's a Glaswegian actor who got taught a trick or two to make the conceits of the play work. His jocular interaction with volunteer Katie was charming in its improvisation. Katie's willing and eager and unskeptical chitty-chat with Drummond was central to the evening's success. No question a dullard of a volunteer would have scotched the show's entertainment quotient completely. Easy laughs, interesting mind-games, a casual delight in spite of the weaponry piece !

*Addendum 1: Without much doubt the alleged "William Henderson" in the Bullet Catch script was based in actual fact on an American conjurer, lit.& fig., a man of Scot descent from Brooklyn. His real name was William Ellsworth Robinson but he masqueraded as a mute Chinese magician named "Chung Ling Soo". This moniker was a purpose-driven rhyming bastardization of the name of the bona fide Chinese magician Ching Ling Foo (1844-1922) whose berobed and ornamental stage presence Robinson also "borrowed". He traipsed around Europe outfitted as an oriental poseur to replace his earlier more prosaic, occidental real-life character "Robinson The Man of Mystery". Meagre fortunes in America for that persona, apparently.

It is further reported that Mr. Foo was sore displeased with his doeppelganger "Soo", and speculation circulated that Foo might have been in some way implicated in Robinson's death. Such rumours were natural as part of the mythos behind the bullet catch trick that killed him. The fatal bullet that lodged in Mr. Robinson's lung was due to a dirty musket misfiring. This despite the rifle having been inspected by two British army foot-soldiers on furlough who were among the audience of 2,000 that fateful night of March 23, 1918 at the Wood Green Empire theatre in London.

During the forensic investigation into "Chung Ling Soo" Robinson's untimely and spectacular demise, numerous letters written to and by family members and others were referred to in the public cache of evidence, giving rise to the "Garth" letters in the current performance. Robinson's death was ultimately ruled "death by misadventure", an accidental homicide with no charges laid against anyone. Robinson himself was identified as the culprit who had been sloppy in the husbandry of his magic show prop that then blew him away.

But speculation abounded throughout. Wiki tells us a friend of Houdini's, a fellow magician named Harry Kellar, who wrote plaintively to him : "Don't try the bullet-catching trick. There is always the biggest kind of risk that some dog will 'job' you. And we can't afford to lose Houdini. Harry, listen to your friend Kellar, who loves you as his own son, and don't do it!" Scriptwriter Drummond quotes much of this but references his fictional "Henderson" rather than the two real-life Harry's as its source. 

For some fascinating history on the bullet catch trick and on Mr. Robinson/Soo, go to or check out Wiki or punch into your browser this URL that sets out many of the stories : 

**Addendum 2 : The father/son Blackstone magicians were actually Chicago-born folks surnamed "Bouton" on their birth certificates. They appropriated their stage identity from the downtown Michigan Avenue hotel named in honour of USA railroader and local political heavy Timothy Blackstone who was prominent in the US midwest in the late 19th century.

Particulars :  In association with The Arches, Glasgow and PuSh International Performing Arts Festival. Until February 7th at the Revue Stage, Granville Island. 75 minutes, no intermission. Phone 604.687.1644 for schedules and tickets. 

Production crew : Writer, Performer, Co-Director Rob Drummond.  Co-Director David Overend.  Arches Artistic Director Jackie Wylie.  Tour Producer Bruce Strachan.  Production and Stage Manager Marcus Montgomery Roche.  Stage Designer Francis Gallop.  Sound Designer Ross Ramsay.  Lighting Designer Simon Hayes.  The Arches Graphic Designer Niall Walker.  The Arches Media & Marketing Manager Georgia Riungu. 


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