2014 Edmonton Fringe Review: Mr. & Mrs. Alexander

Mr & Mrs Alexander take us back to the Victorian era in New Zealand, when magic stage shows as we see them today were in their infancy and the world of science and technology was new and not entirely well understood.

Passed off as a real-life story (it's not, though they do a good job of painting this as a historical drama: neither the mayoral theft nor the governor-general's murder occur in this list and indeed NZ didn't have a GG until 1907), Mr & Mrs Alexander is a way to show off various magic tricks (Mrs. Alexander stops her heart and enters a mysterious other realm, Mr. Alexander makes balls appear under cups) under the guise of storytelling. It's definitely novel, and quite entertaining.

As the story begins, Mr & Mrs Alexander are touring New Zealand in the early 1890s, wildly popular and successful they are at the top of their game. Trouble looms on the horizon, however: why is this "the last time they will ever perform this show"? The performance is basically a recreation of their 1892 show at Auckland Town Hall, with a few quick scenes from earlier in their life, and of course a lot of modern-day communication with the audience bringing them up to speed on things like the prevalence of opossum traps and how mysticism and the idea of "communicating with the other side" by going into a heart-stopping trance were so wildly popular and yet also generally not understood. This was sometimes a bit of a distraction that I thought took away from the vivid period account they were doing simultaneously, but I do appreciate that in a world where kids don't know we used to have endless bar arguments before Google on smartphones was a thing it can be necessary to explain a world we don't always fully appreciate as radically different from our own.

The various elements of magic are, of course, what constitutes the bulk of the work: a little "whodunnit" asking if the butler did it in the bedroom because of politics, mentally transferring touch between two couples (after first holding an awkward "Newlywed Game" between them), and using a spiral to make Mr. Alexander's head appear to grow -- again, all tricks that are more or less understood by the collective consciousness today, but dynamite in 1892.

For a final trick, the "Mayor of Auckland and his wife" are called up onto the stage, where a variety of tricks and stunts are preformed before simulating the final act of Mr and Mrs Alexander: making Mr. Alexander disappear on-stage. Forever. With, oh yes, a rather expensive European-crafted jewel which the mayor's wife gave away for a magic trick and then never seemed to give back (shades of Seinfeld's infamous "stolen jacket" episode). Mrs. Alexander, who was hinted at being in early pregnancy during the show, apparently disappeared soon after (and soon after receiving much charity). Months later in Australia, a new husband and wife magic act debut with a new name...

The performances in this play are well done: obviously the two stars David Ladderman and Lizzie Tollemache wrote the play around their own skills as magicians and illusionists, and therefore they aren't necessarily 'actors' in the traditional sense where you could see them doing a 2-person Hamlet or Pirates of Penzance in a future year. But of course while acting isn't necessarily a skill of magicians (cf. Penn & Teller guest starring on Babylon 5) showmanship certainly is, and being able to perform on stage and work with an audience were definitely skills they brought to the table. Playing themselves, even under the guise of themselves as they would have existed 120 years ago, still required them to play the role and both did very well. The tricks of illusion and magic are all very well done as well, though be forewarned there is a lot of (individual) audience participation (Hint: don't go as a couple, that seemed to vastly improve the odds). The looming threat made earlier in the play that this was the final show, and that the couple seemed on a collision course with a dark end kept the audience always engaged, at least in the periphery, of the 1892 plot. It would have been interesting to see this sort of story play out with less magic tricks and stunts, though the occasional dramatic non-magic scenes they had were a little uninspiring: it seemed also quite unlikely that two shucksters would actually believe that stopping the heart actually communicated with the other side and the drama involved in it didn't have time to develop.

Final word: If you like magic shows and don't mind the chance of finding yourself on-stage holding up a big sign that says "LUST", you should definitely enjoy checking out the non-historical account of Mr. & Mrs. Alexander

(for more reviews of the 2014 Edmonton Fringe, click here)