If you’ve walked down Liberty Avenue around 9th Street in the last few months, you’ve doubtlessly noticed the storefront for Liberty Magic (and maybe even recognized the trick it depicts): a life-size replica of Houdini’s water torture cell, complete with a mannequin suspended upside-down inside. It’s a striking reminder of the images that magic as an artform often conjures up in the popular imagination—Houdini and strait jackets and narrow escapes. But magic, on the other hand, may also bring to mind Gob Bluth and his demands to be taken seriously. It’s not a fair way of looking at it, but magic isn’t always granted the same sense of relevance and dignity as other performing arts. As its tagline suggests, Liberty Magic sets out to correct this imbalance by “elevating the art of magic”—and that’s exactly what it does.
The venue is described on the Cultural Trust’s website as “an intimate, speakeasy performance space dedicated to the art of sleight of hand and prestidigitation,” and it’s hard to overstate how well-executed this concept is. Despite the fact that the space has only been open since February, it’s already hit its stride. A great deal of thought has clearly been put into the experience, from its size (at 66 seats, it’s perfect for intimate shows), to its aesthetic (a blend of modern elements and old-fashioned charm), to the staff (who strike the exact right balance of being genuinely welcoming without being intrusive).
Its latest show, Billy Kidd’s Bridging the Gap, does justice to Liberty Magic’s mission. It’s always wonderful as an audience member to watch a performance where you feel completely taken care of, knowing you’re in the hands of an expert entertainer who will guide you through the evening with trust and humor. Billy Kidd is that kind of entertainer. Her showmanship is exquisite and her connection with her audience is direct and genuine. I was more than willing to go along whatever odd, unpredictable, and magical path she chose to take us down.
I could go on for hundreds of words about how much I enjoyed Bridging the Gap, but since one of the most delightful parts of the performance is its sheer unexpected weirdness, I won’t go into too many details. Suffice it to say that it starts and ends with a monkey named Charlie, and along the way it involves a variety of common props (a balloon, a wine glass, a jacket, and, of course, decks of cards) used in uncommon ways. Kidd uses her wardrobe to as great an effect as her props: she looks like a latter-day Dickens character, complete with newsboy cap and fashionable brogues. Her onstage persona has a puckish quality that must have taken years to hone but feels absolutely effortless. The overall sense is of entering an Alice in Wonderland -esque world where reality isn’t so much removed as it is askew.
The show isn’t perfect–the transitions between pieces aren’t always clear and the ending is abrupt–but compared to the show as a whole, the rougher passages hardly register. I could happily have watched Kidd perform for twice as long as she did, and then some—she clearly takes her art very seriously, but there’s also a deftness and a lightness to the way she performs that makes her effortlessly watchable.
Liberty Magic offers a pleasant, sophisticated evening from start to finish, providing not only an excellent theater-going experience by any measure, but also the often-too-rare opportunity to see magic performed as the art it truly is. It’s a worthy and exciting addition to Pittsburgh’s cultural offerings. The Cultural Trust recently announced the venue’s 2019-20 lineup, including a subscription series. Bridging the Gap runs through June 23rd; for tickets to this and future Liberty Magic shows, visit the Cultural Trust website here.
Categories: Archived Reviews