Technical wizardry matches the magician's artistry in “The Journey,” illusionist and mentalist Scott Silven's 55-minute trip into the landscape of his rural Scottish homeland and our minds, which is being livestreamed for a limited run as part of Chicago Shakespeare Theater's World's Stage series.
The conceit is that the pandemic has trapped Silven in his childhood home outside of Glasgow and that he's invited us — only 30 audience members at a go — to join him on a voyage exploring the transformative power of time and space, as well as how he's connected to his roots and we are all connected to one another. The proof is in a series of tricks, most of which involve him soliciting memories of dates, addresses and other data from us, then demonstrating that he knew all this long before we told him.
Silven is a smooth, seductive operator, and the elaborate set-up begins even before the show starts. We're asked to watch a couple of videos of him walking across the rocky hills near the roiling sea, as his soothing voice tries to hypnotize us with instructions accompanied by a repeating series of images.
We're told to do this wearing headphones, which we're also directed to use during the performance, and our computers have to have cameras and microphones for us to participate. Finally, we're asked to bring an object that has meaning for us, two blank sheets of paper and a pen, preferably a thick Sharpie.
The most impressive coup is the way Silven and his production team make possible the audience participation so essential to magicians. Using technology similar to Zoom but also different, our images in their little boxes are projected onto the walls of his space, which is fitted out with a few props (a locked box, a little pile of stones) and supposed to be a room in his house, though the views through the windows are projections. On this audiovisual platform, we can all see each other, and he can single out participants by making their images sort of float in the air.
Credit for this innovative way of bringing us together goes not only to Silven, but also to director Allie Winton Butler, designer Jeff Sugg, sound designer Gareth Fry and composer Jherek Bischof. If the projections sometimes go over the top — for example, the squiggles of light frequently dancing across the walls — well, it's hard not to want to experiment with the medium.
More problematic for me was the framing story interwoven with the tricks. Written by Rob Drummond along with Silven, it's a quasi-mystical folk tale (probably mostly made up) about a forlorn Rip Van Winkle–like boy named Callie and the stone cottage that is his home. The resolution concerns the mutability of time and place that's the whole evening's theme, but I found my mind wandering as I waited for the next magic feat.
The best of these illusions are amazing and inspire the question that's the height of praise: How did he do that? I'm still puzzling over Silven's ability to anticipate numbers picked at random and make connections between objects he didn't know about in advance.
Some of the tricks are easier to figure out, however, and the big finale — designed to demonstrate our connectedness — is a bit of a disappointment. Overall, I felt manipulated, and I'm not sure the experience is worth the money for everyone.
Still, “The Journey” is an enjoyable exercise in escapism, and we need that now more than ever.