Rehearsing takes more than just remembering lines for the actors of Orange Lemon Egg Canary.
Mikhael Tara Garver, the artistic director of Uma Productions, is in rehearsal trying to describe to the cast and crew of Orange Lemon Egg Canary how a certain moment in the play is going to work, but she’s choosing her words so carefully that she barely says anything at all. “I’m sorry,” she nods toward me, “I’m trying to be somewhat cryptic. There are things I just don’t want to reveal.”
A magician never reveals her secrets, after all, and in this production everyone’s a magician. Rinne Groff’s play concerns a stage magician named Great, his grandfather (also named Great), and their relationships with their assistants. The title refers to a trick performed by the grandfather for the boy that got the younger of the pair into magic: peeling an orange to reveal a lemon, removing the lemon peel to uncover an egg, which, when cracked, releases a live canary.
What Garver is trying to describe so obliquely in the presence of a journalist is the show’s major set piece, a magic trick called the Hypnotic Balance, in which the magician’s assistant is balanced on a spike at the small of her back and twirls like a gyroscope. If it goes wrong (which the script calls for it to do), the assistant is impaled. And in Brian Sidney Bembridge’s intimate set design for the Chopin basement theater, it has to happen within ten feet of the audience, making it quite a challenge for the show’s magic designer and star, Dennis Watkins.
“Well, it requires more from the girls who are on it than from me,” Watkins jokes. “They really are balancing up there, so they’ve got to be working out their stomachs and abs all the time.” He also reveals that Uma rented illusion equipment from a magician in Canada that was “made for the same kind of trick…without giving too much away, it was under different circumstances, so we had to do a little reengineering.”
Watkins, a founding member of the House Theatre, shares one notable trait with his character. “I started learning magic when I was very young from my grandfather,” he says. “He had been a magician most of his life, and he ran a magic store in Dallas called Douglas Magic Land for several years.” By age ten, Watkins was performing at birthday parties, and by high school he was entering competitions. Magic went by the wayside as he studied theater at Southern Methodist University, but when the House mounted its first show, 2001’s Death and Harry Houdini, he found himself up to his old tricks designing daring underwater escapes. “Now it’s sort of become a part-time job doing magic, which is great.”
He taught his six fellow cast members how to do various tricks in the course of rehearsing the play. “Actors always seem really excited to get to learn how to do that stuff,” he says, “and it makes me really pay attention to the mechanics, the fundamentals of sleight of hand, that I tend to gloss over at this point.”
Watkins has been trying to get a better handle on his sleight of hand—as he’ll sorely need it when it comes to that giant spike during the Hypnotic Balance, which he’s been struggling with during rehearsals. “I think we’re pretty close to solving it,” he says. Watkins later admits, “This thing boggles my mind.”
Orange Lemon Egg Canary hatches Wednesday 18. See Theater, Fringe & storefront.