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Plenty of ‘Magic’ at play in Goodman’s world premiere

Brett Schneider, starring in the Goodman Theatre's production of "The Magic Play," is photographed in Chicago on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

When a friend challenged playwright Andrew Hinderaker to write an unproducible play, he came back with “Colossal,” a mash-up of theater, modern dance and full-contact football that has to his surprise become his most produced work. But as chance would have it Hinderaker revisited this unlikely challenge all over again when he began to envision his most recent work “The Magic Play.”

‘The Magic Play’
When: To Nov. 20
Where:Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Tickets: $10-$40
Visit: goodmantheatre.org

“Early on I had a moment of thinking this one just really might be unproducible,” Hinderaker says with a laugh. Now after years of working with words and illusions, “The Magic Play,” is set for its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre.

As you can tell Hinderaker is interested in the intersection of theater and other forms of live entertainment. His interest in magic goes back to childhood and an uncle who was an amateur magician. Today, he is fascinated by the “visceral astonishment and amazement of magic” as well as the kind of artist who obsesses over perfecting an illusion.

“I was intrigued by the artist who would practice alone in a room for years in order to create an effect that lasts just a few moments,” Hinderaker says. With “The Magic Play,” a story of love and loss directed by Halena Kays, he blends magic deep into the story: “I think the magic in this show is much more about an expression of character and exploration of relationships rather than making this simply a play that has some tricks sprinkled in.”

Hinderaker’s partner in magic is Brett Schneider who is something of a rare breed — a working actor and accomplished magician/illusion designer who has managed to forge a career blending the two. He portrays the main character, a rising young magician who has mastered his art but whose love life is falling apart. Francis Guinan plays his father with Sean Parris as his love interest.

Schneider first came on board the project as an advisor (“I was just happy to wax philosophical about magic in theater and story”), but Hinderaker quickly realized he was writing the part for him. Beginning in 2012, he says they met weekly “to talk about the play, look at pieces of magic and build the show in a very unique way.”

Brett Schneider | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Brett Schneider | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Schneider admits that if there isn’t a deck of cards in his pocket there’s usually one nearby. His interest in magic began as a child when he received a magic kit as a gift. But instead of magic becoming a passing interest it stuck.

“I was around 10 when I really got the bug,” Schneider, 31, recalls. He became a regular at a magic shop in his hometown San Francisco and when he was around 13 began performing at dinner parties, banquets and corporate events. Close-up slight of handwork became a specialty. At Northwestern University, where he studied theater and philosophy, he co-created a one-man show, “Dark Room,” that combined narrative with magic.

“I loved that show. It spoke to all the things I was interested in,” Schneider recalls. “I knew I wanted to keep the two in tandem as I started working as a professional actor.”

Schneider’s illusion design work has been seen on many Chicago stages and nominated for two Jeff Awards. An added challenge in “The Magic Show” has been following Hinderaker’s lead as the playwright came up with his own ideas for illusions.

“It was my job along with the rest of the design team to reverse engineer his ideas and bring them to life,” Schneider says. “It was and interesting and wonderful challenge.”

As part of the show, Schneider will bring up audience members to participate in his sleight-of-hand card tricks. It’s a bit like working without a net, he says.

“At times, it can be terrifying but it’s also thrilling,” Schneider says. “It’s also a gift to be given elements of the show every single night that you have no idea how they will go. It allows you to be even more present in the moment.”

Hinderaker adds that these interactions bring out Schneider’s great strength as both an actor and magician: “He builds this relationship with the volunteers that is as intimate and miraculous as it can be. We are finding that the only way to create moments like this is if you also embrace the possibility of failure. This is all part of the essence of the piece I wanted to create.”

NOTE: “The Magic Play” is appropriate for ages 13 and up.

Mary Houlihan is a local freelance writer.