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Is It Still Magic If You Die? In "Bullet Catch," a magic trick raises troubling questions

By MARK BLANKENSHIP

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How nicely would a stranger have to ask to make you shoot him in the face? Assuming you aren't a violent person, what assurances could make you stand on a stage, aim a loaded pistol, and fire?

Or forget actually firing the gun: What about just watching someone shoot? What would it take to make you sit silently as you watch someone pull the trigger? What if it took less coaxing than you assumed? What if the subtle pressure of social conformity or the natural desire to please kept you in your chair? What would that say about your moral code? About your willingness to believe what others tell you?

Those questions throb inside Bullet Catch, a "play with magic" that's now running at 59E59 as part of the annual Brits Off Broadway festival. Written and performed by Rob Drummond, it recreates an infamous magic trick in which someone fires a gun at a magician and the magician catches the bullet in his teeth.

In Drummond's version, the shooter is a stranger picked at random from the audience. Drummond lets us know right away that the bullet catch is coming, but then he spends the next hour focusing mostly on his volunteer. He asks questions, makes nice, and even does a few mind-reading tricks about the audience member's life.

When everyone's comfortable, Drummond has his co-star read a few scenes with him. They're about a supposedly real magician named William Henderson who died performing the bullet catch decades ago. Drummond plays Henderson, and the volunteer, reading lines off a notecard, plays the poor audience member who accidentally shot Henderson to death. As the play progresses, these fictional scenes get more and more intense, as we learn that Henderson may have wanted to die. He may have tricked his volunteer into killing him, and the volunteer, a working-class man with struggles of his own, may have been uncomfortably familiar with the desire to end it all.

Yet after every dramatic moment, Drummond performs another magic trick or banters with his volunteer. It's a playwriting strategy that keeps us disoriented: Are we tense now, or are we laughing?

Underneath all that, of course, there's the knowledge that the bullet catch is coming. We keep hearing about a magician who intentionally died because of this trick, and we're watching a magician who's about to perform it. Even though we know we're at a play---and even if we correctly guess that William Henderson never existed---it's easy to worry we'll see something go horribly wrong.

That's the point. "It should start to create doubts and little creeping feelings in the back of the mind that something's not quite right here," Drummond says. "Does this guy share a certain personality trait with that magician? And if he does, should we suspend our disbelief enough to think this could be an elaborate suicide?"

Drummond ramps up the tension by inviting us to leave the theatre. If watching the bullet catch is too harrowing, he says, then we are welcome to head home. At a recent performance, several people did leave, but most (including this reporter) stayed. And staying raised those awful questions: Is this what it means to be controlled? Is it really this easy to be talked into watching a potential execution?

For Drummond, those questions are important, even if they're unncomfortable. "I'm investigating, 'Why the hell am I doing this?'" he says. "Why do I make theatre that isn't just a gentle, nice play? And I think it's because it's worth it. It's worth it to take people to the edges of their comfort zone because that's what shakes them into action. It's good to get them unsettled, because if they're not unsettled they wouldn't think as deeply."

However, "unsettling" is not the same as "cruel," and even at its climax, Bullet Catch feels emotionally generous. Drummond stresses that he wants to take care of the audience and his on-stage volunteer. That's why there are so many moments of gentle conversation. "The message of the show is that we're all the same, we're all connected, and you need to desire that human connectivity, otherwise your life can be meaningless and pointless," Drummond says. "So if I was to get up there and not connect with the audience, it would jar with the actual message of the piece."

The connection is evident in the number of people who stay to watch the bullet catch. As Drummond says, "If the audience, en masse, left when I said, 'You're allowed to leave,' there would be no chance of me getting hurt or the volunteer getting scarred for life for having done that to me. But never has the audience left en masse."

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Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor. Photo by Carol Rosegg