Review: Yearn to travel? Illusionist Scott Silven transports you on 'The Journey'

Charles McNulty
·4 min read
Scott Silven in 'The Journey'
Scott Silven in "The Journey." (Journey Productions Limited )

Illusionist and mentalist Scott Silven has an extensive repertoire of mind-bending tricks. But the most impressive feat of magic in his latest show, “The Journey,” is his ability to transport his virtual audience to another time and place.

The COVID-19 pandemic has precluded travel for many of us. I try not to dwell on what I can’t enjoy, but the longing to be in a different landscape was both inflamed and slaked by this hourlong curio entertainment, which is being presented by the Broad Stage through Nov. 15.

"The Journey," which just had its world premiere at the Momentary, an adventurous art and performance space in Bentonville, Ark., provides an intimate interactive experience for up to 30 participants (be they individuals or households). Under the direction of Allie Winton Butler, the production welcomes in the uncanny through a combination of innovative legerdemain and old-fashioned storytelling. The text by Rob Drummond (based on a story by Silven) lends a sense of wind whistling through the rafters, and Jeff Sugg's production design adds just the right touch of stylized eeriness.

Dressed in black and crowned with flowing black locks, Silven has the aura of a changeling who has grown up to be an installation artist. His manner is gentle and soothing. The sound of his voice has the reassuring hum of a cat’s purr. In recounting his return during the pandemic to his childhood home in rural Scotland, the setting for his tale, he whisks us away by unlocking some of the treasures inside our memories. He listens attentively and remembers every detail as he carefully plots our collective course.

A captivating travelogue prefaces the work. Video of a Scottish landscape of hills and sea unfurls to a score of crashing waves, the bleats of sheep and a majestic musical composition by Jherek Bischoff. A figure treads a solitary path. Wouldn’t it be nice to follow him along? Having been confined for so many months to my increasingly arid patch of Los Angeles, I found all the enticement I needed for such an outing in the flashes of greenery and smog-less skies and in the wordless lyricism of nature.

This is not a show in which you can remain invisible in your seat. Silven depends on the participation of audience members. His powers of mental telepathy are put to a unique end: to reveal that, though we can no longer safely gather inside a theater, our interconnectedness continues on a parallel plane. Numbers and names are his window into this cosmic skein, and he becomes the cartographer of this alternative universe.

A folktale of uncertain provenance — could it be centuries old or merely some elaborated dream of Silven’s youth? — is the gateway. A boy wanders into the woods and returns an old man to the home that is no longer stirring with life. Time rushes away, but the past leaves traces.

Audience members were asked to bring an object of personal meaning to them. I had somehow not gotten the message, but as one woman was describing a broach from Vienna, I snatched from a nearby bookcase a letter opener a loved one bought for me in Venice when we were traveling with friends to celebrate my 50th birthday.

My timing couldn’t have been better, because I was called upon next. Perhaps more astounding to me than the trickery to which this item would play a role in the show (along with the Viennese broach and a 19th century family Bible another attendee introduced) was that I had chosen an object in haste that contained more meaning to me than something more precious I likely would have selected after careful consideration.

I had some difficulty setting aside questions about how the digital space might be making Silven’s illusionist feats easier to pull off. In the theater, the spectator has more control over the visual field. What was the camera not allowing me to see? These thoughts drained some of my willingness to believe, even as I was enchanted by the way in which technology enabled Silven to put his participants, à la "Harry Potter," into ghostly frames on the wall when conversing with them.

The ta-das were calculated to leave our mouths slightly agape. But I was more enthralled by the theatrical environment, which had greater power than the sum of its individual parts. At the end of “The Journey,” I was still sitting at my dining room table, but my world had opened up from this brief excursion with strangers.

And isn’t that the point of travel? To feel a sense of the inspiring vastness when we return home. Under the guise of reading your thoughts, Silven does something more astonishing: He refreshes your outlook.



This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.