Reviewed by Theresa Buchheister
The feeling of a cold hand on your shoulder in the dark. Arm hair gently raising off of goose-bumped skin. A twinge of dread mingled with excitement in the pit of your stomach. The exhilaration of knowing that everything could go wrong and that, more likely than not, nothing will go exactly right. Trusting the virtuosity of a real person in front of me to not only hit the marks, but make me smile through my sweat at the end of it all.
These are all reasons that I love live performance—in particular, spook shows, sideshows, magic shows, circus acts, aerialists, and the like. Thus, my genuine thrill in hearing that Canal Park Playhouse would be hosting weekly Spook Shows.
The theatre is in an old brick building, as far over on Canal as you can go before falling in the Hudson. Upon opening the front door with its bizarrely low handle, I walked into a cozy waffle cafe, with skull decorations on all of the tables and something bulky in the middle of the room covered in a big black sheet. As the hour approached, we were led into a small back-room theatre with tight brick walls, asymmetrical stage space, old-fashioned inward-opening wooden windows, and honest-to-goodness theatre seats. The grid was hung with slightly dim lamps and the air filled with sounds of bells, tones, chants and organs for an extra spooky boost. It is an unexpected gift (at least in New York) to see a show housed in a location so entirely fitting and atmospheric.
House of Ghostly Haunts takes the perfectly strange qualities of the space, the rich history of the spook show, and the hybrid skill set of the creator/performer (Cardone the Magician) and runs with it.
Upon seeing Cardone, I scribbled in my notebook “Hmmm... Rockabilly Magician,” which became an increasingly apt way of looking at the performer and the show—a continual meeting of styles and genres, often in ways I had never seen nor imagined.
His tailed coat and mustache are very magician, while his slick hair, belt and shoes are very rockabilly. His persona hopped (or, occasionally and pleasurably, melded into a seamless presence) between storyteller, showman, and educator. Most notably, the meat of the show Frankensteined mentalism and ventriloquism, escape and illusion, science and humor, seance and Elvis fandom.
My socks were delightfully blown off by “mentrilquism,” especially—which is what you imagine when thinking of the two component art forms: part mind-reading and part voice-throwing. The combination alone was impressive, but the bit itself was continually surprising.
Speaking of surprises, there is no way to describe the escape/illusion combination without messing up a brilliant and risky moment in the show. I can only say it had me from the start and then decided to blow my mind in another direction altogether.
Having created this magical monster of stage performance (with impressive magical device design by Bud West), Cardone led the diversely aged audience through 90 minutes of thrills and chills, with a little break in the middle to share with us more of his personal fascination with magic and spooky stuff in his traveling Dime Museum. Though, as part of his shtick, I wish he had created a collective means of response for us in the beginning (“Clap when I hold my arms out to you dramatically!” or “Yell out answers when I ask you questions!”), so that we could help the show maintain momentum.
Due to the nature of the show (homage to Spook Shows), of course, there were bits and tricks I had seen before, some of them placed, timed, and executed better than others, and moments where the bottom dropped out due to inconsistent precision (sitting in the back row was possibly to blame for noticing some messy tech prep) and structural issues, potentially due to the lack of a director. For such an ambitious and complicated show, a strong offstage hand can be greatly beneficial and take the work to the next level (for a prime example, Todd Robbins’ spook show, Play Dead, directed by Teller).
In the end, though, I was left grinning massively—thrilled, terrified, and impressed by the innovative hybrids presented by Cardone the Magician. House of Ghostly Haunts leaves audience members of all ages with the electric tingle of live performance.
If I say anything more, it will spoil the magic.