Mental Captivation with Mark Toland’s “Mind Reader”

Mystery, mentalist Mark Toland notes in his new show Mind Reader, is in fairly short supply these days. After all, most of us carry infinitely-knowledgeable computers in our pockets; at a moment’s notice, we can access any piece of information we could possibly want or need (and many pieces that fall into neither category). Mystery may not be easy to find in its natural habit, but Toland sets out to cultivate it in his performance. In keeping with this goal, he requests his audiences not tell tales about what they see—a request I fully intend to honor, but one which does present some difficulties in writing a review.

So I won’t be describing any of the particulars, though I will pass along what Toland says at the top of the show: that the audience’s thoughts are his props and their minds are his stage. The show doesn’t include audience participation, it consists of audience participation–a feat requiring a great deal of skill and gutsiness from any performer. Happily, Toland is more than up to the task. Despite the intimidating intensity he displays in many of the show’s marketing materials, Toland in-person is welcoming and approachable, in such a way that suggests he would host a really great dinner party. His interactions with audience members are smart, upbeat, and often hilarious; his energy is infectious (if, occasionally, a tad frenzied).

But it’s the seriously playful sense of mystery infused throughout the show that has stuck with me most in the days since I saw it. Half the fun of any kind of magic performance is how it allows audience members to try and puzzle out how the effects are achieved; but where mentalism is concerned, any amateur attempts at reverse-engineering are particularly difficult because the effects are so personal and abstract, achieving maximum impact with minimal equipment. There obviously has to be a trick to all of it—as Toland himself says, he doesn’t have supernatural powers and wouldn’t want that kind of responsibility anyway—but given his ease with the material and the sheer volume of details he produces in just over an hour, it starts to feel not totally impossible that maybe, just maybe, this guy is for real. In any case, it’s hard to imagine how he does it–and walking out with that unsolvable mystery is a surprisingly refreshing feeling.

Mind Reader serves as a joyful reminder of the utility, the necessity, and—if you’ll pardon the pun—the magic of live entertainment: the community formed by sharing a space not only with your fellow audience members, but with the artist as well; the fundamental uniqueness of each performance, which can never be duplicated exactly; the experience of watching something that can’t be paused, rewound, or rewatched. There simply aren’t many times in the modern world where you’ll find 70 adults in a room together for 70 minutes—and no one looks at their phone. Towards the end of the show, Toland tells a beautiful story about the power of mystery to encourage a full appreciation of the present moment. This kind of appreciation is a gift we may have forgotten we need–and Toland gives it with earnestness, talent, and humor.

Mindreader runs through August 4th at Liberty Magic. Tickets can be purchased through the Cultural Trust website.


Laura Caton grew up as a military brat and has lived in six states and two countries, but considers Pittsburgh her adopted hometown. She moved back to Pittsburgh in 2017 after four years of working in theater administration in New York City. When she’s not writing about theater, she can be found translating German novels, watching anything that bears even a passing resemblance to a Nora Ephron movie, and reading omnivorously. 

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