If Dennis Watkins didn’t literally do magic, then magic would be exactly the word to describe what he does. But whereas one might expect a man who does magic to be a man who tricks you, who bamboozles your natural senses, Watkins is after something else. When he performs an act of magic (I refuse to call them tricks) he creates a sense of comforting, majestic awe. You do not know how he does what he does, but you would never in a million years ask him to tell you how. Because, as Watkins puts it at the outset of his play “The Magnificents,” “You may find yourself in a moment asking “How?” But remember this: There is no answer near as satisfying as the question itself.” Amen.
Written by Watkins and based off the character of his own grandfather, “The Magnificents” follows a ramshackle family of circus performers as they travel the back roads of mid-century Texas. Featuring a headstrong strongman (Jeff Trainor), a gravity-defying aerialist (Lucy Carapetyan) and a red-nosed big-hearted clown (Michael E. Smith). The act is led onstage by the irascible magician Magnificent (Watkins) and off by his steadfast wife, Rosie (Tien Doman). When a young, mute drifter (Tommy Rapley) joins their only-kind-of-of-merry gang , it becomes clear that he is the one person fit to learn the art of magic from Magnificent, whose health is quickly declining. The plot itself is pretty pro forma, but it does what it needs to do: setting them up, so that Watkins can knock them down.
But what saves the show from being a mere framework around the Watkins magic act is the play’s bold theatricality, keeping in the House style. There is mime, clowning, aerial routines and considerable choreography (done by Rapley). It’s a complete show, no doubt. Even so, it always knows when to back away and simply let Watkins work his, well, his magic. Watch him tell a man’s life story using a deck of cards or pluck a random number out of an audience member’s head in the most endearingly show-offy way possible. You know it’s a trick. There is never any doubt. But Watkins succeeds in convincing us that the fun is in not knowing. And we are more than happy to sit back and enjoy the show.