There’s an infamous magic trick known as the ‘bullet catch.’ The set-up is simple: A person equipped with a fully functioning firearm blasts away at another stage performer. But, as the illusion’s name implies, the targeted entertainer somehow ‘catches’ or stops the bullet before acquiring a large bloody hole in himself.
The bullet catch is infamous because since the 17th century, several magicians (and assistants and family members) have actually died doing it – the best known being the ‘Chinese’ magician Chung Ling Soo (real name: William Ellsworth Robinson). He was shot to death onstage in 1918.
As a result, the ‘bullet catch’ has become known as the most dangerous illusion in the magic business.
Dallas composer-lyricist Patrick Emile and his wife and bookwriter Olivia de Guzman Emile have been developing a new musical, ‘As We Lie Still,’ around the idea of taking such a tragic stage failure one logical step further: What if the shooting victim was then revived – magically? And what if they could do the same thing, show after show?
Repeatedly topping Jesus Christ’s post-crucifixion finale would certainly qualify as a boffo box-office draw. The entire idea has a sense of bravura and historical fascination to it – akin to Christopher Priest’s 2005 novel, ‘The Prestige’ (and the Hugh Jackman-Christian Bale film adaptation). ‘The Prestige’ is based on a related premise, cheating a different kind of “death-defying” illusion.
Level Red Spoiler Alert: Some readers may feel the summary that follows reveals too much. But to explain what’s lacking in the magic, I have to explain the magic.
In ‘As We Lie Still,’ the turn-of-the-century conjurer in question – the Great Marduk or Avi Leiter (played as your basic imperious, fame-seeker by Wyn Delano) – has rummaged through ancient books looking for an illusion that will catapult him to stardom. He finds an incantation that supposedly can resurrect the dead. Not surprisingly, his loyal, somewhat dim backstage assistant, Billy (Jovane Caamano), is neither so loyal nor so dim as to get himself shot just so Leiter can prove he can abracadabra the poor fellow back to life. But then Leiter hires a smart, attractive, onstage female assistant, Josephine (Ms. Emile). And things, as they are wont to do, go disastrously wrong.
Much of the press attention given ‘As We Lie Still’ has understandably focused on the technical feat of making a musical a credible conjuring act. Fortunately, ‘As We Lie Still’ is set more than 100 years ago. The show’s talented magic consultant Trigg Watson must replicate only fairly traditional, seance-and-stage illusions from that era: card tricks, the linking rings, the levitating girl. The tricks are pleasantly handled (I enjoyed the playing cards geysering from a top hat), and they’re astutely augmented by the entire atmosphere of pop-up, hocus-pocus that technical director Robin Binford has built into the sliding-door-and-drawer-filled set.
But it’s Peter Rand’s handsome video projections that may be the single most effective aspect of the production: They let us know where and when we are with sepia tintype images, while also adding ethereal interest: the past as a wonderland. Kudos as well to the gifted director Michael Serrecchia for juggling what is easily Contemporary Theatre of Dallas’ most intricate and elaborate production to date – including a 12-member cast.
But the Emiles’ book has a fatal difficulty: Leiter’s grand illusion needs an after-life to prove it works – an after-life that we witness or that the recently revived describes to us. Inevitably, that would be the first question anyone would ask following an onstage resurrection, other than whether this event is covered by medical insurance. Where did Josephine ‘go’ while she was dead? What’d she see? Long tunnel or pearly gates?
Look into my eyes: Jovane Caamano, Olivia de Guzman Emile and Wyn Delano in ‘As We Lie Still’
Establishing a credible after-life onstage is a different order of challenge than some sleight-of-hand. No amount of fake fog will make St. Peter or Shiva a real character. Which is perhaps why an onstage hereafter seems rarer than a musical-with-magic: I don’t know of many Broadway shows that actually go beyond the grave and bring the audience there. Even in “Cats,” Grizabella may ascend to the ‘Heavyside Layer,’ but we never see what that is. There’s also Bruce Jay Friedman’s unfortunately neglected dark comedy, ‘Steambath,’ in which God is a Puerto Rican sauna attendant. Otherwise, I believe, agnosticism pervades. There have been plenty of musicals and stage comedies populated by the occasional spirit – like ‘Ghost’ or ‘I Hate Hamlet’ – but these are earthly specters. In the theater, it seems, heaven exists offstage.
So faced with the prospect of creating the hereafter, the Emiles, director Serrecchia and costumer Michael Robinson (who also portrays the older Leiter) have gone New Agey-and-ancient-Egyptian. We meet Azriel (Aaron Green), who is often identified as the ‘Angel of Death.’ Here, he’s more the ‘Angelic Hall Monitor’: He keeps the befuddled souls headed in the right direction. But because the now-she’s-dead, now-she-isn’t Josephine keeps jumping the queue, he’s intrigued by her.
I suspect most theatergoers accept this entire after-life premise provisionally: ‘Let’s see where they’re going with this before we commit to it.’ It doesn’t help that Azriel and his emotional needs feel somewhat disembodied. In fact, character motivation is an odd oversight throughout the show. The story outlined above is not the way the audience encounters it. Instead, we begin with the older Leiter, now reduced to fussing around his dusty bookshop and holding the occasional seance for pocket money. One day, in rushes the young Ruth (Monique Abry) who has somehow learned of Leiter’s ‘revivalist’ background. She pleads for him to give it a go one more time for her husband Michael (Kyle Montgomery) who’s in a coma. Leiter refuses. All that old stage business only ended in heartbreak.
Which is where the problem starts. We know what Ruth wants: her beloved back on his feet. In classic Broadway fashion, she sings an ‘I Want’ song: She sings about wanting her husband back. We sort of know what Leiter wants. We don’t know his whole backstory yet, but it’s clear he both misses his stage glory and fears the way it all turned out.
So Leiter turns Ruth down. Sorry, no coming-back-to-life. Not going to happen.
End of show. Except Leiter promptly offers to let Ruth work around the shop. And they happily go get some ice cream. But why? If there’s a quick justification for all this I confess I missed it. Even if there is, it had better be a good one because husband Michael is still on his deathbed. Why wouldn’t Ruth resent Leiter’s refusal? Why isn’t she off desperately finding medical specialists? And why didn’t Leiter – unpleasantly reminded of his past failures – shut the door on her?
Husband Michael, by the way – the subject of all this anxiety – remains in limbo almost as much as Azriel. We see him once in a meet-cute flashback with Ruth, and that’s it. We never see Ruth visit Michael’s bedside, which might lend a sense of urgency to her actions. Instead, she wrings her hands once or twice and then goes off to learn how to pull off fake seances with Leiter.
This fuzziness over motivations isn’t immediately apparent because ‘As We Lie Still’ intertwines the past, the present and the after-life in flashbacks and flashforwards and flashes upstairs (hence, Rand’s video projections providing a welcome GPS service). Basically, for much of the show, we’re distracted by learning the intricacies of Leiter’s backstory and by the way the life in the next world seems to be like waiting in line at the DMV.
Then, all caught up with the exposition, we see Ruth rush in again, tell Leiter of another (somewhat foreseeable plot development) and Leiter immediately works to crank up the old incantation. This means that, without this new development, Leiter would have been perfectly content to leave Michael in a coma, while he and Ruth puttered around the shop.
I’ve gone into the book problems in ‘As We Lie Still’ in such detail because book problems are notoriously what kill many musicals dead, never to come back. And judging from the reviews when ‘As We Lie Still’ debuted at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the show’s creators sense these problems as well. They’ve tinkered with the show’s opening, for instance (it was originally a hospital bedside scene, interestingly enough).
But what’s also clear is why they’d persist in re-working ‘As We Lie Still’: The entire show has a strong, appealing Sondheimian flavor – in its complexity, its self-consciously theatrical setting, its ingenious interlocking themes of life-and-death, real-or-fake, and with its overall subjects of loss, memory and regret (think of ‘A Little Night Music’ or even ‘Follies’). These lend this show a somber tone, leavened somewhat by its wry take on the whole theatrical wizard industry. Guzman’s often attractive music is also Sondheimian in the way he frequently turns dialogue into seemingly scattered musical lines that then fuse into a whole song.
As a lyricist, though, Emile is not so deft. With Sondheim, even when his songs (and the scene in general) function as exposition, he holds our interest with wordplay, with chit-chat transmuted into poetry, with vivid lines that reveal character in a single phrase. Emile has several passages that ring out, and he knows it because they’re repeated to great effect: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, what you are about to see is real magic!” And “real as a rainbow and right before your eyes!”
A comic interlude – Billy’s “The Life of a Stagehand” number – is welcome precisely because it evokes his likable character and what he does. It’s a perfect little cameo, but it’s pretty disconnected from the narrative around it. It exists mostly to provide a light-hearted finish to the first act.
Which is fine. That’s not a bad reason for a number to exist, especially a little pleaser like Billy’s song. ‘As We Lie Still’ needs more of that theatrical clarity, more credible, earthbound emotions and not flashier bits of hocus-pocus or heavenly fog.
It’s clear the Emiles have future hopes for their musical, and one wishes ‘As We Lie Still’ can – presto change-o – find some new life. But the show will have to convince us that a young assistant would repeatedly get shot in cold blood on stage – no fakery, she’s dead. Then she visits the afterlife and comes back just so she can climb out of her own grave.
And then she does it all over again. Just so the show can go on. Convincing us of that will take ‘real magic’ – real motivation.