April 14, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Center Theatre Group’s ‘Dust From the Stars’ works its magic

It’s a 2020 magic show moment: An audience member is trying to pick a card. Her lips are moving, but nobody can hear her.

“You have to click unmute,” the magician explains gently. “It’s the little microphone in the lower left corner of your screen.”

The now-familiar indignities of Zoom don’t faze the three hosts of “Elephant Room: Dust From the Stars,” a production commissioned by Center Theatre Group and running for only seven performances, ending Sunday.

Creators and performers Geoff Sobelle, Steve Cuiffo and Trey Lyford play the unapologetically cornball magicians Dennis Diamond, Louie Magic and Daryl Hannah, who resemble a trio of Doug Henning wannabes from the 1970s — Diamond rocks the mustache, Magic the shoulder-length perm and Hannah the friendly overbite — but are clearly light years ahead of the rest of us in their mastery of the maddening, glitchy, cumbersome digital world to which human interaction has lately been banished. Together, under the direction of Paul Lazar, they break Zoom like a wild stallion and ride it into the future.

This show was conceived for the stage, a follow-up to “Elephant Room” (which also was commissioned by CTG and ran at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2012). In the wake of COVID-19, “Elephant Room: Dust From the Stars” was reconceived as a Zoom get-together, performed live for a limited audience. (I was one of 117 who collectively filled six pages in Zoom’s gallery view. Disclosure: Times owner Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is an investor in the videoconference service.)

The premise is that we’re attending a magical society’s monthly meeting. Diamond, Magic and Hannah go over the minutes, dun us for dues and rebuke us for not cleaning the “critter corner.” They do tricks, passing objects back and forth to one another through their Zoom screens, then testing our ESP with cards, encouraging us to put on our “partici-pants,” praising those who do for “extra-sensory perfection!” Magic as usual. Then somehow, with the help of often mind-blowing special effects — sets by Julian Crouch, handmade props, filmed clips credited to Derrick Belcham and Hannah as well as original music credited to Hannah — we blast off into space on a hunt for alien consciousness.

Having missed the first “Elephant Room,” I found the press descriptions of “Dust” unenlightening. (Is it the Daryl Hannah from “Splash”? No.) I watched the trailer on the CTG website, falling at once for Diamond’s earnest, deadpan, incoherent explanation: “Elephant Room is, in a sense, a vehicle. Well, it’s more like a room, that you would drive a vehicle to. And then park outside of and then you would enter into this room, called the Elephant Room.” I was in.

But because “Dust” was described as “interactive,” I worried. One show I saw last winter, before theaters shut down, was Sobelle’s “Home” at the Broad Stage, in which I inadvertently landed a starring role. In spite of pathological stage fright, I somehow got up there, pranced around in a Santa suit and beat a young child with a pillow. I remember it as an out-of-body experience for which my body was unfortunately present.

My kids reassured me that if “Dust” got too interactive, I could always claim Wi-Fi problems or the technical incompetence our culture grudgingly allows its elders.

The latter, it turned out, I didn’t have to fake — Zoom is not a passive forum, and the hosts kept me busy with demands to mute and unmute my audio and video, switch views, answer polls and check the chat for a link to the company’s merchandise page, where I was tempted to order numerous enticingly kitschy accessories. My keyboard froze for a while. Then it started working again. And since the audience interaction seemed mild and good-natured, I submitted to the unpredictable, baffling charms of this unprecedented experience in unprecedented times.

“When showmanship is carried far enough, it can create an illusion of meaning,” Magic read from a magician’s guide shortly before the rocket launched. And in fact, that’s what happened: The hijinks culminated in a gimmick that made my eyes mist over. Whereas “Home” sent me on a weird trip, at the end of this goofy space voyage, nearly a year later, I felt at home. I didn’t want to leave Zoom — honestly I find the most interesting stuff happens at the end of Zoom meetings — and so I sat there for a weirdly long time, waving goodbye, listening to Diamond croon in French, accompanied by a Chopin Nocturne, as the faces dropped away one by one.

‘Elephant Room: Dust From the Stars’

When: 7 p.m. Friday, 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (ends Sunday)

Tickets: $10

Information: www.centertheatregroup.org

Running time: About 1 hour, 20 minutes