The Arches/Rob Drummond
New Zealand Festival
Hannah Playhouse | February 22-28
Bullet Catch opens with an actor, eyes locked on the audience, telling us a story of a bullet catch gone wrong, and ends with the same actor locking eyes with an audience volunteer who is holding a loaded gun at his head.
Rob Drummond is our actor/magician. He has a self-effacing, polite manner that charms the entire audience within minutes, but he maintains a cool professional edge so when he says something is dangerous, we are pretty sure it is dangerous. The play begins as he carefully selects one audience volunteer. His generosity and affability on stage and his delicate care of his audience assistant mean that we totally trust him. And we’re in the perfect position to believe anything he may tell us about guns, safety catches, etc.
There are two threads in this work. The first is the true story of a bullet catch trick gone wrong. Through a series of letters and some presentational scenes, we’re told the story of William Henderson, a magician who died in 1918 during a bullet catch trick. We hear letters written by Charles Garth, read by the audience member who accidently shot Henderson read by the audience member preparing to shoot Drummond. The parallel isn’t lost on the audience, cheeky giggles and knowing nods abound.
The second thread is a magic show. Four or five tricks are convincingly pulled off, and provoke “ooo’s” and “ah’s!” Some employ mindreading, guessing a word or date from behavioral clues (familiar to anyone who’s seen The Mentalist), while others are clever illusions (making a broken glass bottle disappear). The tricks are properly involving and impressive.
At the heart of the show are questions like, what would make a magician attempt a dangerous feat like a bullet catch? And what would it take to risk shooting a stranger?
Literally presenting these questions with a bullet catch doesn’t quite work. At one point, Drummond asks of we’d like to know how he made a table levitate. The audience must vote amongst themselves, and despite a few purists, we overwhelmingly opt to reveal the secret. And so the trick is brazenly explained, and we sit subdued, slightly disappointed that we’ve ruined the magic for ourselves and each other. Potentially this is an exercise in freewill or groupthink, but really we see an explanation that sharply draws attention to artifice and trickery at the core of the form.
By the bullet catch climax, we are pretty sure the gun isn’t real; we know the show has toured the world so he’s probably going to be okay, and we can see the trickery before us. Despite being very aware of all this I’m surprised that I’m still a bit excited. Bullet Catch shows us how susceptible to suspense we really are, but the thrill only runs so deep.
The simple promise of a loaded gun sitting onstage to be shot at a head provides the show’s tension, but the heart lies in the letters from Charles Garth, the lonely, confused audience volunteer desperately seeking meaning when an illusion becomes a reality.