Aging Magician at the New Victory Theater

The New York Times - Review: ‘Aging Magician,’ a Fable Complete With Complexities
By Anthony Tommasini | March 9, 2017

Harold, a middle-aged, solitary sad sack, earns his living making and repairing clocks. What really consumes him, though, is the children’s book he has been writing for years, about an aging magician who must pass on his Book of Secrets to a receptive child, a magician heir. But before he can do so, the magician collapses and is rushed to a hospital.

How should Harold end the story? And why is he finding it so difficult? He shares his crisis in the poignant, entrancing “Aging Magician,” at the New Victory Theater, the invaluable company that presents family-oriented entertainment.

This 70-minute hybrid theatrical work — an opera, a play, a paper-puppet show, a concert piece for children’s chorus and string quartet — was developed over five years in various workshops, with an official premiere last spring at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Its high-powered creative team includes the dazzling set designer and director Julian Crouch (he’s worked on “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Broadway, and Philip Glass’s “Satyagraha” at the Metropolitan Opera); the imaginative composer Paola Prestini; and, most important, the poetic librettist and musician Rinde Eckert, who plays Harold in a tour-de-force and deeply affecting performance.

The New Victory recommends “Aging Magician” for children 10 and older. It deals with death and, perhaps more challenging, is shot through with ambiguity. Still, the very young children at the matinee I attended seemed both engrossed and entertained. Mr. Eckert makes an endearingly goofy, sorry-faced Harold. When he becomes confused, he takes out his accordion or rides his too-small bicycle around his shop. He often hears the voices of children calling him.

Still, complexities pervade this work from the start, when Harold explains that the hero of his book is dying, “or … not dying, almost dying, or … I don’t know, I have to decide.” Many children in the audience giggled at his confusion, a touching reaction: an instance of kids’ being amused by adult befuddlement, whatever the source. There were many such tragicomic moments, as when Harold, describing the emergency room to which his collapsed hero has been taken, becomes the magician on the table, his body in spasms from defibrillation shocks.

Though many narrative threads are left loose, the rich artistic elements of “Aging Magician” come together powerfully. Mr. Eckert’s Harold has stretches of plaintive singing, but delivers most of his part in long monologues filled with poetic flights. In one, he describes the magician’s being taken to an aquarium as a child. The boy sees his father’s eyes as “another kind of ocean, wet with wonder, blue and green.”

In some scenes, Ms. Prestini’s score stays in the background or almost silent. Over all, the music is crucial, by turns pensive and fidgety, solemnly harmonic and skittishly diffuse. The score is vividly performed by the impressive members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus (Dianne Berkun Menaker, conductor), who become a kind of Greek chorus, and the fine string players of the Attacca Quartet. Some of the choral writing is ethereal, unfolding in long-spun lines and chantlike phrases. Yet there are complex stretches of cluster chords that the choristers sing with precision (and from memory).

During some frenetic, ha-ha-ha outbursts, the young singers draw upon their inner demons to chilling effect. The string quartet plays episodes of contemplative, modal-tinged harmonies that lend a timeless cast to the storytelling.

Mr. Crouch, true to form, creates moment after moment of stage magic: Video images dart across painted scrims; projections play upon sheets of paper the choristers hold up. In one lovely scene, the children crumple up paper to create a flock of birds that fly and swoop.

To complete his storybook, Harold must confront the magician’s death. No, he decides; the magician must live! But that’s not how things end, the chorus reminds him. Instead, he has the magician disappear and then reappear as a child. At this point, Harold enters some wondrous place, a heavenly realm that looks like the insides of an enormous clock, with gears and wheels that are played like musical instruments.

But what has actually happened? This uncertainty didn’t rattle the children in the audience, who seemed enraptured with Harold’s new playhouse and the strangely mystical music.

Time Out New York - Review: Aging Magician casts a bleak but beautiful spell at the New Victory Theater
By Helen Shaw | March 6, 2017

There’s a disconnect at the heart of Rinde Eckert, Julian Crouch and Paola Prestini’s collaboration Aging Magician—although, to its credit, that heart is a passionate one. The trio’s nontraditional opera is essentially a bleak monodrama, performed by Eckert, backed by dozens of members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. So, is it for children? Or is it an adult-oriented meditation on death? Those two don’t have to be exclusive categories, of course, but it is striking that a work at the city’s best children’s theater seems so awkward an offering for kids.

Still, as a grown-up, I can say it’s a pleasure to hear Eckert’s tenor again. His ecstatic 2000 masterwork And God Created Great Whales juxtaposed his weird-inventor-from-central-casting look and soaring voice to often wonderful effect. There, he was a composer racing against his deteriorating mind, trying to finish an opera of Moby-Dick. In Aging Magician, Eckert uses a similar nesting story-structure. Here, he’s Harold, a watch-maker with a passion for writing—a lonely man telling a story about the titular stage conjuror.

In its textures, Aging Magician is often quite beautiful. Prestini’s compositions (liquid, amelodic phrases) complement Eckert’s voice, and director Crouch—one of the great designers working today—makes lovely spectacles out of sheets of paper (which the children hold up to make a projection screen), those same papers crumpled up (which can be made into birds or a man-sized puppet), and, a wire-and-wheels machine-portrait of Harold that fills the entire stage. The children sound wonderful, and it’s eerie to hear their piccolo voices singing “Clamp! Clamp! Scalpel!” as a man dies on an operating table.

This musical creep-out happens early, since Harold tells us right away that the magician is at death’s door. Librettist-performer Eckert then toggles between Harold, who reminisces about being young, and the magician, who is preoccupied with the loss of his stage secrets. Will he find someone to inherit his illusions? He spots a boy in the street; he decides he’s the one. And here, quite early, we hit the text’s first serious bump. A kid’s show should, ideally, not revolve around a man stalking a child through a market, no matter how much he needs a protégé. The second problem is even more serious. The show consists of an “exploded-view” structure of the magician’s death (we examine it from all angles), and so we’re essentially always inside the opera’s first few moments. Dramatically, the show is therefore intentionally inert—and this, coupled with hypnotic music, makes for an enervating 80 minutes.

The good news is that time does its customary disappearing act in Aging Magician. The bad news is that it does it awful slow.