Banachek’s The Alpha Project and the One-Person Theater Show

Reviewed in this essay: Banachek’s The Alpha Project, The Fleck Dance Theatre, Luminato Festival, 8-10 June 2012

Do certain individuals have the ability to see the future, to read the thoughts of others, or to communicate with the spirit world? Whatever your answers to these questions might be, in his show The Alpha Project an extraordinary performer named Banachek invites spectators into a universe where such superhuman feats are possible. At least, this is true for the first half of his one-man performance, which recently finished its world premiere.

The initial fifty minutes of Banachek’s show are filled with demonstrations of his uncanny psychic powers. Impossible displays of thought transmission, telepathy, second sight, spirit channeling, and even spirit possession are not only performed live, but are also experienced by a wide selection of audience members who are asked to participate onstage. Banachek does not hesitate to directly involve the most critical skeptics in the room and his effects leave them baffled. One of the highlights for me on opening night was the response of another reporter. When Banachek, whose eyes had been duct-taped shut and covered with a steel mask, divined the personal item that this journalist held concealed between his hands (a silver ring), an expression of profound, even disturbed, bewilderment settled into his face.

Fortunately for him, and for any audience members disconcerted by hints that supernatural powers might be real, Banachek begins the second half of his show with a twist never made explicit in The Alpha Project’s programme – he announces that everything he is doing is an illusion. We learn that the title of his show references “Project Alpha” an elaborate hoax undertaken in 1979 in which an eighteen-year-old Banachek and his collaborators duped scientists at Washington University into verifying their psychic abilities. From this point forward, his effects illustrate how the scientists were fooled, how he turns unusual cultural rituals like past life regressions into magic routines, and how many of his stunts (like being buried alive) are expressions of the human desire to cheat death by superhuman means.

This last half of The Alpha Project is at once the most fascinating part of the performance and the part that left me wanting a more brutally honest piece of magic theatre. I say this, because I passionately love and respect the art of magic. I truly believe that a full-length evening show by a magician of Banachek’s caliber has the potential to deliver the kind of raw emotional power and epiphany-evoking human drama that other pieces of theatre do. So I was excited to hear him share some of the intimate details of his life, such as having to take care of himself from the age of nine onward, as meaningful segues between his effects. These kinds of personal revelations are the risks that magicians rarely take, though such disclosures are the essence of the one-person theatre narratives whose most poignant lines and scenes are forever emblazoned in my memory (from Spalding Grey’s Swimming to Cambodia and Lorenzo Pisoni’s Humor Abuse for example). And though I sense that Banachek’s life story contains this kind of emotional power and notice moments in the second half of The Alpha Project where he gestures towards a more profound memoir, the opening night’s performance consistently rushed past these gritty details to get to the next mystifying effect on the set list.

Some of my colleagues may chastise this review, complaining either that it holds magic to an impossibly high dramatic standard or that it asks magic to be a kind of theatre that it simply is not. But I hold fast. Every year for the past three years, Magicana and Luminato have brought world-class magicians to Toronto where their shows compete for public attention and critical acclaim with some of the most daring and prestigious theater being performed anywhere (e.g. Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach and Robert Lepage’s Spades in 2012). The festival and the city are a fine venue for the premiere of a theatrical magic performance that will someday go on to win a Dora, a Drama Desk, or a Tony award. Magic is waiting for the completely fearless one-person show that will take it there. For now, Banachek’s The Alpha Project is a masterful step in the right direction.

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