by Julie Congress · April 1, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #68 Julie Congress comments on Charlatan
Magician/mind-reader Vinny DePonto begins Charlatan by announcing that he will tell us the truth for exactly one minute and then will proceed to lie to us for the rest of the show. Charlatan, written by DePonto and Josh Koenigsberg, is a riveting chain of illusions (mind-reading, slight-of-hand, cons, and magic) linked together by intriguing monologues about the nature of lying and tools-of-the-trade/history of deception.
Charlatan is a difficult show to write about because the most exciting parts, the endless feats of mentalism that leave you mentally screaming “how did he do that?!” and, of course, the climactic unraveling end in which we metaphorically watch ourselves be lassoed in to DePonto’s world of deception, well these things, nor the myriad of other gasp-inspiring moments, these things I cannot write about but will save for YOU to experience first hand. Instead I offer you this vague example as an indication of the tone and feel of this play of lies. About halfway through, DePonto will suavely deal out a deck of cards to an unwitting but affable audience volunteer and explain the history and techniques of counting cards. And while he is explaining the specific deception he is performing, he will warn you that he is simultaneously trying to deceive you, and then, despite explanations and warnings, will manage to, you guessed it, deceive you anyway. DePonto is, after all, a charming charlatan – “a person who falsely pretends to know or be something in order to deceive people” (Miriam Webster).
Carolyn Mraz’s Usual Suspects-esque set design, with fading newspaper clippings, posters, and pictures covering every wall and piece of furniture, let you see everything and nothing all at the same time. A mood of creepy nostalgia permeates the set, heightening of-so-satisfyingly-creepily at one moment when DePonto tells us the story of a young blind girl in the 19th century who could see with her fingertips. Director Andrew Neisler is clearly well versed in the art of deception and seamlessly directs our eye; the unseen hand on our back, guiding us this way and that to allow for the “magic” to happen.
So what is it like to be knowingly lied to? In fact, it doesn’t feel that unusual. As DePonto, Charlatan’s unreliable narrator, illuminates, we are quite accustomed to it – from the Bill Clintons, Barry Madoffs, and Richard Nixons of this world to the actors we watch onstage down to the very people sitting next to us - lying and being lied to is part of our cultural currency.