Fringe 2019 features productions that are deep, dark, moving, profound, thought-provoking, stunningly original and/or just plain bizarre. My second-favourite show of this year’s festival isn’t any of those things, but it’s a quirky little triumph of clever, faux-awkward showmanship and sheer entertainment value: Magic Hour Plus.
Featuring university professors turned magicians Grant McSorley and Derrick Chung in the latest version of the popular McSorley & Chung stage magic show they created in 2016, Magic Hour Plus also stars the duo’s original director (and two-time Canadian magic champion) Marc Trudel, here playing the onstage role of an eager-to-please intern.
McSorley & Chung are amusing in their stage personae as bookish, cheesily self-aggrandizing showmen, often puffing themselves up with lofty rhetoric and then deflating themselves with self-effacing humour; but comedy-wise, Trudel steals the show as a socially awkward magic savant. All three excel at misdirection, not only shifting our focus to where each magician wants it, but also subverting expectations; seemingly botched tricks will morph into even cooler tricks instead, like Chung’s baffling Rubik’s Cube stunts.
Primo prestidigitation abounds. I was sitting in the front row, and while I did think I caught an unintended glimpse of a ball in transit once during the cups-and-balls routine, I was otherwise happily bewildered by seamlessly slick sleight-of-hand bits like McSorley & Chung’s balloon gags and Trudel’s dazzling array of card tricks. Its virtuoso skill leavened with unassuming humour, Magic Hour Plus mystifies and delights.
Remember all the things in the first paragraph I said the magic show wasn’t? My favourite show of the festival was all of that stuff, plus whip-smart, charming and riotously funny besides. I’m talking about Artisanal Intelligence, the story of a girl and her robot, written by Ira Cooper, directed by Bronwen Marsden and produced by Spec Theatre of Vancouver, BC.
The sheer imaginative weirdness of the concept is pretty great: Jane (played by Hannah Everett) of Artisanal Intelligence, Inc. has invented the robotic hipster customer service agent Barry (played by Drew Carlson), programmed to serve niche businesses with her ever-expanding knowledge of specialized topics ranging from the coffee sciences to bicycle mechanics to obscure arts and culture references.
The play has Jane making a sales pitch to potential buyers (the audience). One could build a fun play entirely out of showcasing Barry’s ridiculously arcane trivia database, her superhuman barista proficiency and her many other esoteric skills, and we do get all that, and it’s a hoot; but Cooper’s script also mocks and celebrates hipster culture, explores artificial intelligence, and raises uneasy questions regarding the nature of life and free will. This segues into oddly touching emotional drama, forbidden romance and even a sci-fi battle for the fate of humanity, and it’s all resolved through the power of love and a musical number.
Everett is excellent as Jane, but the cybernetic superstar of the show is Carlson’s inhumanly cheerful Barry, whose stiffly jerky movements and stilted singsong voice make her seem like the adorable love child of an old-school Disney animatronic character and Amazon’s Alexa, though she gradually evolves into something else altogether. Carlson’s surreally bravura performance helps make Artisanal Intelligence not just my Fringe fave of 2019, but one of my favourite Fringe plays of all time.