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Charlatan!

You should see this show—but I can’t tell you why.

In Charlatan!, magician Travis Bernhardt reads minds, and he makes the legitimate point that audience members should go into this kind of experience not knowing what to expect. So let’s just say that watching Charlatan! is a lot like using a Ouija board when you’re a teenager. Times about 10,000. What he does is jaw-dropping. I have zero idea how he does it.

One of my Fringe favourites, Bernhardt has done something different every time I’ve seen him: straight sleight of hand one time, spectacular Vegas-style act with a bang-up finale another. Because he deals with one audience member at a time in Charlatan!, this performance is quiet, episodic, and intimate. Canny and in control, Bernhardt is also tender and wise with his subjects.

 
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Unpossible!

Get outta town! This guy’s amazing. In his magic show Unpossible!, Travis Bernhardt—who is quickly becoming a Fringe darling, judging by his sold-out houses—performs a terrific batch of sleight-of-hand tricks. He also creates mind-reading illusions that, well, blew my mind. (These include getting audience members to apparently communicate telepathically.) Bernhardt’s stage persona, which is quirkily smart and funny, is also getting increasingly confident. There’s more flamboyance and theatricality in Unpossible! than there was in last year’s excellent Lies!. By the end of his performance—and a bang-up ending it is; he really takes risks—the stage is happily littered with playing cards, little red balls, and shattered preconceptions of what a magician can do.

 
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Charlatan interview

One such trouper is the city’s own Travis Bernhardt — a young, lauded magician frequently awarded “Best of the Fringe” and “Favourite Picks” honours at festivals across the country. Wickedly clever and deceivingly nonchalant, Bernhardt’s shows often involve intricate, hour-long tricks within tricks.

This year, he’s upping the stakes.

Charlatan! probes the boundaries of disbelief by exploring the murky worlds of fortune telling, mind-reading, and speaking to the dead. You know the kind of thing — “spiritual” experimentation at a Victorian home, or large conference centres in small towns, full of people looking for impossible answers.

In his new show, Bernhardt embodies the role of a psychic, while using the title of the show as a disclaimer — this is both real and nonsense, authentic yet feigned.

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Decoy Interview by Barry Doupé

One way to look at it is: doing readings is a way to hang out with a group of people and talk about their lives. It's a shortcut, no small talk. The very first thing we get to is their problem! The closer it gets to looking like therapy, the more I become aware that I'm not a therapist. That said, the idea of real versus fake was right at the heart of the show from the very start. It was built right in. One of the reasons it’s called 'Charlatan!' is to put that idea in people's heads: the idea that what you're about to see is fake. So, when they walk in and it (hopefully) doesn't feel fake, there’s dissonance.

I thought maybe I don't know what the word charlatan actually means then.

Yeah! Exactly! A lot of the believers came more than once because they kept hoping I would get to their question. Because they thought I had some kind of insight in some way that mattered. I think they felt there was something more to it. Because that perception that I'm somehow reading their mind or picking up on something intuitively in some way gives it a certain credibility, a certain authority. A lot of people, me included, want that authority in order to believe the advice. This voice in your head isn't authoritative enough. Or if you talked to a friend it wouldn't be a big enough authority. But as soon as that authoritative figure comes in our brain accepts it. My layperson’s theory of it is when we're kids we have to accept our parents authority to live because that's a survival thing. And we never fully let go of that.

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