Magician and self-described professional liar Vinny DePonto says he can discern the truth about you from the lies you tell. Whether you believe him will determine how much you enjoy Charlatan, a new show at Ars Nova that combines sleight-of-hand, magic, and mental legerdemain with audience participation to expose the gullible dupe — and crafty prevaricator — in all of us.
Directed by Andrew Neisler and written by DePonto and Josh Koenigsberg, Charlatan advances the idea that humans need deception in order to make sense of the world, and, more cynically, that human perceptions are intentionally manipulated by others at every turn. The engaging DePonto asserts that whenever we accept information without question, we run the risk of being deceived.
Charlatan attempts to disarm and disorient from the moment you enter the building and receive a curious hand stamp at the box office window. Then you'll be asked to write a personal "confession" on a card and put it in a sealed envelope at the foot of the stage. What DePonto has in mind for all of those secrets lumped together in a bowl onstage won't be revealed until the end of the 100-minute show. Joe Cantalupo's gauzy lighting heightens the woozy feeling of being out of your element as one by one people are plucked from the audience to help prove that no one can escape DePonto's powers of manipulation.
If all this sounds a little nerve-racking for a casual night out, it isn't. DePonto's charm and good humor shine through when he interacts with the audience, and he has a preternatural ability to put participants at ease. His occasional eye-popping sleight-of-hand performances also conjure the familiar realm of a traditional magic show.
On the other hand, Charlatan seems bent on unsettling its audience members by challenging them to acknowledge the mendacious world around them. We all practice to deceive, he says, in large or small ways every day, and at the same time, someone else has marked us as an unsuspecting chump to be manipulated.
What feats of illusions does DePonto perform? I won't tell you. He entreats the audience, rightly so, not to reveal to others what transpires during Charlatan. It's a fair request, because the suspense that DePonto successfully creates throughout relies on not knowing what to expect. But I will mention that you may have the chance to win $500.
While it's fun to get swept up in the seemingly inexplicable revelations that DePonto gleans from his participants, some acts seem more transparent than others, eliciting harrumphs rather than oohs and aahs. Be that as it may, there's good fun and plenty of food for thought to be found at Charlatan…if you're willing to believe what you see.