Magic Steven appeared at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for three nights only, here Lucy Van shares her reflections and experiences of this acclaimed comedian with his unique brand of confused personal thoughts and experiences – the World of Feelings.
‘Write it all down,’ says Bokonon, the wry spiritual cipher of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. The narrator recalls the irony embedded in these teachings: ‘Without accurate records of the past, how can men and women be expected to avoid making serious mistakes in the future?’
World of Feelings is the third stand-up show by Magic Steven, following the celebrated In Search of True Self and Try to Love Everyone shows of 2014. I have seen reviews commend the surreal, deadpan, awkward and endearing qualities of Magic Steven’s shows, and these adjectives continue to apply to this latest excursion, advancing his adventure into the space between written word and live performance. Here the audience encounters a subtle, minimal manipulation: outwardly Magic Steven just brings a full page to a bare stage, but the success of the show relies upon its unexpected arcs and doublings back. The felicitous repetitions – ‘Everything is falling into place’ – rupture the surface of the scenario, which on first glance is simply the uncomfortable staging of a grown man reading from his diary in public.
He delivers no cheap laughs, although in the mechanics of the show they are there for all to see, ripe for the picking. It’s a credit to his artistry that he never reaches for the low-hanging fruit. I wondered, as I settled into my seat, as the titters from the front carried over the theatre, as Magic Steven introduced himself and his practice of recording in notebooks what happens to him in his life, why the concept of a grown man reading from his diary, or even keeping one, is intrinsically amusing; perhaps the cultural message we receive is that the practice is a feminine one. Teenage girls are the famous keepers of such solipsistic texts. Relatedly, I reflected on Magic Steven’s apparent mastery of the ‘friend zone,’ to use the offensive term he himself does not. Throughout the performance there is a bathetic subtext to do with a frustrated desire for romantic connection when all the while he is ensconced in intimate friendships with numerous women. To quote a line from Try to Love Everyone, ‘what is going on here?’ It’s left to the audience to decide whether the arch-joke relies upon the cultural assumption that female friendship is inferior. That the work leads us to these types of interrogations shows the playful, yet rigorous approach Magic Steven takes to the task of understanding the absurdities of life’s lessons, such as they may be; or even the absurdity of the project of understanding itself.
Write it all down. The ethical injunction is ultimately absurd: taken to its endpoint, we are shown Magic Steven and his therapist sitting in an office together, both silently taking notes instead of talking through the session. I said there are no cheap jokes and I meant it – the humour is the humanist patter of the loveliest of writers, the humble E.M. Forster, the kind old Vonnegut. In a live context the atmosphere is dreamy and expansive, with the intimacy of storytelling at bedtime. It strikes me now as I reflect on the show that as it progressed, the theatre took on the cosiness of a slumber party, just as described in Magic Steven’s observation of a plane cabin after it is dimmed at night. The spontaneous intimacy that comes from gatherings of strangers in small, intermezzo spaces such as plane cabins and theatres is nothing if not relaxing. While the through-lines are rigorous, alert to the comedic possibilities alive in common language and everyday life, they are certainly not didactic or even immediately apparent, but rather associative and accretive as the reader drifts through situations, making leaps from context to revelation. For example, the Coffee Wars are currently tearing Melbourne apart. Of course, it’s true: I don’t know where the key Melbourne café, Proud Mary is, either. And amazingly, this actually means something. Such resonances cannot help but be uncomfortable and of course, very funny.
The show is called World of Feelings and for all its obvious naval-gazing, self-consciousness and self-construction, it is outward looking and worldly. Driven by a desire to have a life-changing experience Magic Steven travels back to India for a fifth time, only to be thwarted by the irresistible magnetism of the hotel room, and the company of a friend from home. In indirect echo of Forster’s A Passage to India, the quest for difference, for adventure, for a ‘special’ experience is disappointed; within the logic of Magic Steven’s text, it can only be disappointed. Pathos to bathos – a ludicrous descent from spiritual exhilaration to the recurring quotidian – marks the sobering, yet highly ethical disavowal of Orientalism as the exaltation of the different, the other. Bathos is parodic, reflexive, anticlimactic and seemingly unintended. And bathos has its charms: for all its loss of the so-called spiritual dimension, it is hardly empty. For all its ordinariness, bathos proceeds from the assumption of a disillusionment that is powerful precisely because it is shared. And though it is a relational, technically undefined noun, the term ‘friend’ shines through as the most apposite word for bathetic connection. ‘Only connect!’ enjoins another of Forster’s works, Howard’s End (the famous quote is followed by the less famous words, ‘the prose and the passion’), and it is somewhere between the impossibility and inevitability of this affirmative statement that we could think of World of Feelings. It’s a friendly show in the most undefinable sense of the word ‘friend’: absurd, relaxed, trusting, charming. Magic Steven is unflinching – but to what? Perhaps trust in the audience, an audacious risk in itself, reaches a wildly provocative limit here. Beautifully bearing witness to the synchronised vibrations of futility and possibility in everyday life, this is a comedy show to trump many others in its invitation to the audience. A connection, however brief, emerges around the enigma of the friend. This deadpan, under-the-radar comedy of storytelling ascends to a superlative estimation of the conditions of human connection.