There’s more here than meets the eye.
That, of course, is a statement that’s often applied to magic shows, in which someone is trying to “trick” an audience into believing there’s, oh, a half-dozen white doves living happily inside a top hat, or some such.
The Tampa Repertory Theatre audience will wonder, at least for a while, if all is as it seems in playwright Crystal Skillman’s Open, which debuts – well, it opens – Thursday at the Hillsborough Community College Ybor campus.
The sole character in Open is, in fact, a magician who spends the play’s 70 minutes trying to convince those in attendance the difference between realty, illusion, dreams and wish fulfillment. “Open,” wrote the New York Times in a rave review, “reminds us that making an audience believe is a trick writers and actors can master, too.”
Kristen Green, a.k.a. The Magician, is a Young Adult novelist who’s written a book about two boys who fall in love over their shared passion for magic.
The Magician’s own lover, Jenny, is lying broken in a hospital bed somewhere across town.
“The Magician is performing a magic act,” Skillman tells the Catalyst, “and she’s showing you what she’s doing: Don’t you see those flowers? Don’t you see this bird I’m producing? But there’s nothing there, to the audience. And she says if you believe, maybe you will see the magic.”
The Magician wants, needs the audience to believe. So she can, too.
“I believe that theater is an act of catharsis,” Skillman explains, “and is more than just storytelling, it’s a live experience.”
In Rain and Zoe Save the World, Skillman created a pair of Seattle teenagers on an impulsive motorcycle journey to join a group of oil protesters on the east coast. “It’s just as interesting how the story is told as the story itself,” she says. “That’s just who I am as a writer, so that’s going to happen with every piece whether I try or not – because that’s who I am.
“So I use genre. There are about 30 locations in Rain and Zoe, so it feels like a cross-country play onstage.
“With this particular play (Open), I had a reaction to a play I’d written about two men, Peter and Bobby, in a play called Wild. In the lobby of the theater, someone came up to me and said ‘You really made me believe that the love between two men could be real. That that was a real relationship.’
“And I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! And this was not a Bible-thumping person, this was a theater person. It just really, really upset me. So that was on my mind.
“But it wasn’t until Trump got elected that the Magician came to me. This character just came in my mind, and started telling me these things. This has never happened to me before – this is one piece where I was channeling something else. That’s now I started writing the play. And then when I realized what was happening …
“A magic act asks investment of an audience, and what that means, and I realized I could use that for my point, about how do you truly support how love is love? How do you support your neighbor and friend? How do you keep your heart open if that’s not what you believe so you can begin to understand the truth? How do you go through your catharsis if you identify as LGBTQ and how can we, as an audience working together, support your journey and identity?”
Tampa Rep is pairing Open with a re-mount of Every Brilliant Thing, the one-person, one-act play it mounted in June.
That production, with actor Ned Averill-Snell, took place outdoors. The night of theater pairing Every Brilliant Thing with Open is the company’s first indoor presentation since pre-pandemic days.
And playwright Skillman, whose parents live in St. Petersburg, is coming from New York for an opening-night Q&A with the audience.
Open, she believes, resonates on numerous levels. “I think there’s something in particular with the Magician because she’s a woman. There’s a lot of striking things in this piece for female-identifying folk, because it’s very rare that you see an authoritarian female magician in front of you. So it’s a very striking image, it’s a very bold statement.”
Skillman’s also fond of saying that there are two audiences for Open:
“One half is like ‘Wow, she’s talking to me! I’m going to be a part of something, and I’m laughing! This is fun.’ And the other half is thinking ‘She’s talking to me, this is horrible! I thought this was a serious drama.’
“And then halfway through, they switch. Because the gravitas becomes clear, but you’re sucked in. It really has a lot of tricks in that way. Because that’s how the play is built.”
For tickets and information, click here. Tickets to see Open and Every Brilliant Thing separately are also available.