The blood-red curtains and exotic images painted across the stage aren't features of an occult smoking parlor. They're part of Esoterica, the new mind-expanding and twisting evening at the DR2 Theatre, for the same reason host Eric Walton intones his lines in a thick Mid-Atlantic Accent and always looks gleefully prepared to row you across the River Styx: You may want to believe this all isn't in your mind, but you'd be wrong.
Yes, it's all a ruse, designed to put at ease an audience expecting just these things from their magic practitioners. The irony is that Walton reduces everything to its intellectual components, as if to insist that reason is the most accomplished illusionist of them all. Over the course of nearly two hours, Walton analyzes - from angles theoretical, metaphysical, psychological, and philosophical - each of the astonishments he presents.
Whether performing series of increasingly complicated card tricks, providing instruction in the finer aspects of the shyster standby Fast and Loose, or simply willing a Mr. Potato Head into a martini glass, not a moment under Walton's stewardship passes by unconsidered. This is a man determined to derive his act's singular character through the help of oblique references to figures like John Stuart Mill, Joshua Billings, and Heraclitus ("It's a magic show and a liberal arts education!", he says), and once he impresses on you these people's cosmic importance, it's hard to think of these tricks in quite the same way again.
That is, perhaps, a good thing. While Walton is darkly charismatic, with a smoothly hypnotic voice well in keeping with his smoky, reptilian Vincent Price manner, originality is seldom his act's stock in trade. His feats of card-guessing, mind-reading, and sleight-of-hand are regular fixtures with tricksters such as David Copperfield and Marc Salem: While they're not old in Walton's hands - does classic magic ever truly go out style? - nor do they radiate with the reinvention that would make them notable on their own.
But, as Walton points out in quoting Billings, "Mankind loves to be cheated, but they wants to have it done by an artist." He's not selling the magic: he's putting himself, and his own unique perceptions of it, on the line. That's why you never feel cheated, even if you've seen all this elsewhere (if probably not performed with equivalently academic suavity). He's adept at capitalizing on his own strengths - that voice, his permanent aura of sly, suggestive creepiness - to make a full, rewarding show from bits that these days only intermittently amaze.
That's why Walton's finest achievement is also his most straightforward: At the end of the evening, he simultaneously manages a fiendish chess puzzle (moving a knight to every square on the board exactly once), completes an arithmetic marvel of a magic square, and proves his mastery of United States trivia. It's little more than a three-way demonstration of Walton's superb memorization and recall abilities, but his impeccable timing, sense of humor, and showmanship grants it all the gravity of a world-class accomplishment.
Walton defines "esoterica" early in the evening as "That which is reserved for the understanding of a select few." But Walton stuns with this moment precisely because he's helped us conclude that it's something every one of us could do.