'Hoax' brings marks into the con game

Flipping matching card pair after matching card pair onto the floor from a brand-new deck shuffled by a volunteer, Maxwell Fink spits, "You can't win if you play with me." Why? Because he's not just a magician, he may be the devil. Lights dim to the candy pop song 'Sh-Boom (Life Could Be a Dream).'

"Hoax," the latest play within a magic show by Baltimore-based playwright Annelise Montone and magician Brian M. Kehoe, livens up familiar card tricks and séance gimmicks with audience participation and an occult-inspired narrative. Kehoe and Montone, who perform together as "The Encounter," introduced the characters of Maxwell Fink and Sarah Swanson last summer in Victorian-era séance piece "Planchette," and are planning to debut a new show featuring their characters called "Awake at Midnight" in 2017.

Kehoe is Fink, a recently reformed con man who's on a mission to dispel common hoaxes with the help of his assistant, Sarah Swanson, played by Montone, who also wrote the show's dialogue. The performance consists of a series of stories about con artists like "Soapy Smith," a money-wrapped soap scammer, paired with related magic tricks requiring audience participation. The narrative helps remove "Hoax" from any comparison to shows starring a goateed guy flinging glitter at you while pulling a dove from his dragon-printed silk shirt.

Set in the 1950s, "Hoax" is delightfully immersive, starting with the unsettling opening in the 14Karat Cabaret, Maryland Art Place's basement bar and performance space. Dimly lit with a red-and-black bar decorated with sugar skulls and Chinese symbols, the lounge and creepy music-box tunes set the scene. Cue Fink, a diminutive, bespectacled man who slips into the lounge from behind a haphazardly hung curtain to tell us about his interactions with the devil.

Side note: Audience members are "required" to wear their "best Mad Men-esque attire," but out of the dozen or so people at a recent performance, only two theme-dressed.

Scurrying around the bar area, Fink is crazed. He is determined to stop unsuspecting suckers (us) from being bamboozled by con artists like himself. Kehoe draws you in with intense eye contact and devil talk, which although somewhat hard to follow, adds a kind of heft to the magic show. Fink vehemently repeats "I know the devil" like a scorned lover warning others what an asshole Satan can be. Stay away from that guy—he'll take your money, your dignity, and your soul.

The audience begins to care about Fink, who is tormented by his evil con artist ways. He wants to make things right, and thinks performing tricks to a crowd will save him. After the opening in the lounge, Fink's assistant yells from behind the curtain that she's ready to start the show. Audience members take seats in front of a low stage, simply lit by four foot lights and an overhead strand of lights that create a pop-up tent revival aesthetic. Accompanying each con story, music ranging from old-time organ to big band adds dimension to the act.

There's unexplained tension between Fink and his assistant, who insists on being referred to as his "business partner." As Swanson, Montone is impetuous yet giddy about presenting these stories. Her first role as a woman giving birth to rabbits is both comedic and disturbing, and the use of props—including bits of bloodied white fur and red-stained paper cut-outs—is inspired. Kehoe also surprises the audience in this first story by actually following through on a cringe-worthy act involving a hat pin that initially appeared to be a cheap trick. (Or maybe it was just a trick. If so, I was fooled, as were others judging from gasps.)

When the show starts, Kehoe slips into a natural wryness when interacting with audience members during magic tricks that follow each con story. But the tormented con artist story line is unevenly applied. Although "Hoax" advertises that Fink will explain how various cons work, there's only one scene—a séance with two blindfolded volunteers—that actually shows how a con is constructed. The rest are simply stories paired with tricks, which are nonetheless entertaining, especially when you get to participate in the illusion.

I got to hold a lighter as Fink turned fire into ice, and I have no idea how he did it. Montone insists each trick has a blatant tell if you're paying attention, but I was literally taking notes and don't know how Kehoe did everything. And I don't really want to. Part of the enjoyment of magic shows is being confounded, even though that gullibility is exactly what Fink is trying to squelch.

"Hoax" runs through Aug. 20 at the 14Karat Cabaret at Maryland Art Place. For more information, visit maxwellfink.com.

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