Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Our Great Malini

Last Saturday night I sat in the second row, center, at the Studio Theatre in Washington to see with my own eyes "Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants." The award-winning show, which was supposed to end its run two weeks ago, was extended an extra week due to popular demand. Indeed, at the 7:30 performance, there wasn't an empty seat in the house. In addition, the theatre was a small one, so that my wife and I were at times only about six feet away from the man himself. The set design was truly fitting--what resembled a small study with old wooden bookshelves, even older-looking books, and strange bits of memorabilia (such as a white deer's head, propped atop a barrel, with a playing card stuck between its antlers). As for Ricky Jay himself, he is quite a presence, looming, large, and wrinkled--but exuding warmth. He wore a suit jacket with sleeves rolled up, so as to show he is no amateur when it comes to sleight of hand. As for the tricks, a few highlights:

With two volunteers from the audience, Jay played several hands of blackjack and poker, explaining the aim of a con as not just beating a player but rather barely beating him. When others showed a 16 or 17, Jay would turn his cards over, revealing a 17 or 18. He easily dealt himself four aces and later, a royal flush. He also demonstrated dealing from the bottom of the deck and, most improbably, from the middle.

Jay starts the show by going up to audience members, asking them to pick a card, stick it back, and in various ways and flourishes, singles the card out. The point of this exercise, I think, was not so much to show he can easily find it, but rather in his technique, such as pushing the card or shooting it out, as if on its own.

Jay was able to find a woman's card, which she signatured, in an unopen deck. (I know it wasn't really in there but even staring at his hands, I could not figure out at what point he slipped it in.)

Ricky Jay is also an able card thrower. First, as far as the end of the theatre, then as a boomerang, catching it. He then throws the card into the air, and as it comes back to him, he slices it in two with a pair of scissors. Lastly he hurls the cards at ... fruit! Namely, he hits a watermelon, getting a card to stick to its hard shell.

One of the things that makes this show great is Jay's storytelling, whether it be about the Great Malini or the history of three-card monte (of which, even after marking a card so you know what it is, he turns it over and it is an entirely different suit). He is also at times self-deprecating. (There are even a few shades of the comic-book guy from the Simpsons.) When explaining how the Great Malini once made his wife appear from under a cup, he adds, "As hard as I've tried, I cannot even manage to get married."

Ricky Jay is the heir to the Great Malini, a true historian of all things conjurable. I hope he has enough true followers, because one day an apprentice will have to fill his shoes. And I hope to God it isn't David Blaine.


Anonymous said...

Jay wrote a fascinating and engrossing book a while back about the history of unique and eccentric entertainers of all kinds called "Learned Pigs and Fireproof Women". If you find his live act (and storytelling) of interest, this is a must-have.

Anonymous said...


Victorino Matus said...

To answer the above reader, by "signatured," I meant the woman was asked to write her name in large letters with a felt-tip marker on the playing card.

Anonymous said...

Oh - signed.

Good blog; I enjoy your work.