A near capacity audience at the Emmett Robinson Theatre at the College of Charleston sat enthralled, laughing and applauding and gasping in wonderment, through Rob Drummond’s Bullet Catch, even after we were invited to leave by the performer. Drummond, who turns 31 today, wrote, directed, and starred in his homage to William Henderson, a magician accidentally killed in 1912 attempting the bullet catch trick, a nasty little thing where an audience member volunteers to shoot at the waiting magician as the magician stands, mouth open, prepared to catch the bullet between his teeth or, for the less adventurous, in his hand. We got the teeth. But not before Drummond had the house lights come up and offered the audience an opportunity to leave the theater, judgment free, before the attempt. A single couple left. The rest of us sat there, holding our collective breaths, laughing through some of the antics between Drummond and his audience volunteer, Tom, a former Marine with a tiny palsy in his hands.
The play lasts an hour but you will forget you are watching an actor and not William Wonder. From the moment he walks onstage, looking a bit not put together in his short trench coat, pulled tightly in front of him, shoulders curved in and wandering eyes, Drummond has you. I mean, you kind of want to know how this Columbo-ish guy is going to hold your attention through an evening of what is, you suppose, essentially just a magic act. Within seconds of the first line, Drummond had us. He was unassuming and unsure, a nice set up for the end of the show because surely this modest, kind, humble guy was not going to attempt a bullet catch. This guy was going to make us laugh, show us some slick tricks and impress us with what appears to be mind-reading and then weasel his way out of the attempt. Well. This ain’t your Aunt Ethel’s magician.
In the midst of the retelling of the history of the trick, Drummond, as William Wonder, explored existential nihilism, free will, and our absolute need for connectivity and believing in something larger than ourselves. If not, Mr. Drummond seemed to conjecture out of Mr. Henderson’s story, we might all be standing on a stage in front of a gathered audience, inviting someone to shoot toward us, promising our intent is to wow whilst the entire time, expecting and wanting to die. It’s all in the eyes — at least as suggested by the poor sucker who pulled the trigger in 1912. Something we share in the eyes … perhaps an emptiness we’ve seen stare back at us from our morning mirror time.
His initial set up is to ask for volunteers from the audience while demanding we recognize we are free not to volunteer. How he gets his volunteers, and I’m not going to spoil it, is a lot of fun and I’m sad now that I pulled my hand down at one point. Keep your hand up; it’s just worth the journey with him onstage. This smartly written and performed piece includes sharing with the audience, as did Henderson the night he was killed, how one of the tricks is performed. Drummond asked us if we wanted to know and most of us shot up our hands in an emphatic yes. He then demonstrated the trick by working backward and then, by disclosure’s end, we watched the most pitiful show of disappointment overtake the actor-magician. And we laughed as he asked the retired Marine to give him a hug. The show is well written and well performed on a set that works perfectly for it, inviting us back into 1912 with its rich wood grain and dark brown panels, oversized trunk, and the ever present photos of magician and murderer. The Ross Ramsey sound design is smart and appropriate, and Simon Hayes’ light design works beautifully, setting the mood and bringing us in and out of time, even if on the Emmett stage there are dark spots the actor walked in and out of.
This is such a worthy one hour at the theater — even if magic ain’t your bag. It wasn’t mine, until last night. I may just go back again.