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Mr. Wallace, played by Evan Kelly (left), and the Stage Manager, played by Timothy Sislo, await the arrival of the Amazing Arcana in "Ghost Light." (Photo by Andy Miller)

Spooky new Renegade Theater production makes use of custom-made magic tricks

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It's said that a magician never reveals his tricks -- but he might pass along a few tips to a local theater company looking to enhance its homemade thriller by including inexplicably eerie moments.

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Renegade Theater Company's original production "Ghost Light," written by Andy Bennett, is a suspense-horror play that incorporates custom-made tricks by Twin Cities-based illusionist Sean Phillips. There will be disappearing acts, empty boxes will become filled and props will move without provocation.

The play directed by Julie Ahasay opens at 8 p.m. today and runs Thursdays through Saturdays through Oct. 27 at Teatro Zuccone.

Bennett began work on the script about 10 years ago, and over the years it has gone from set in a mansion to an old theater. Characters have disappeared, others have been enhanced. In its final version, "Ghost Light" is one bad night for tour guides in the flagship of the city's haunted tour -- the vaudeville theater where the Amazing Arcana died under mysterious circumstances during a magic performance 100 years ago.

"We wanted an original thriller we could develop in our space (at Teatro Zuccone)," Bennett said. "We decided we could set it in a theater and use the knowledge of how the space is designed and all the tricks we've learned about the space."

It was going to take consultation with a professional magician to get everything right, though. Bennett found Phillips online and said he thought the illusionist's style fit with the mood of the production.

"He has a dark and sinister approach to things," Bennett said. "He's a lot more interested in the psychological effects of magic rather than sawing people in half. He has a tone and a vibe. He was perfect. He spent a lot of time working on the perfect effects someone not familiar with magic could pull off."

'Ghost Light'

Bennett's early notes for "Ghost Light" came a decade ago when he was working night events at Glensheen Mansion.

"You and a friend end up being the last ones to shut down the place at 2 in the morning," he said. "You spend a lot of time sitting in the room in the basement. It's where a lot of the weird things happen to tour guides. I started compiling the weird things that happened to me and my friends who worked there."

For instance: One scene in the play includes a guide talking about a dream he had of being chased by a shadow man with knives for hands. One of the other guides claimed to have had the same dream.

"Ghost Light" starts on a night 100 years earlier when the Amazing Arcana performs a trick that includes donning an ancient funerary mask that has the power to keep him alive when he is stabbed by spears on stage -- except it doesn't work, the mask disappears and the Amazing Arcana dies.

Cut to the future when a handful of tour guides are putting the final touches on the Zenith Theater before opening day. An electrician is delayed and a few staff members need to stay late at the theater to wait for him.

It's the second play by Bennett to run at Teatro Zuccone. "Sex Change" played during the 2010 season.

Ahasay, who directed another of Renegade's spooky productions, "The Woman in Black," was tapped to direct this one.

"I was extremely flattered," she said. "It's like someone saying, 'Can you take care of my baby?' "

The tricks

Phillips, who has been studying and performing magic for the past 10 years, said he has collaborated with other magicians, but never a theater company.

"It was important to have the illusions support the play, instead of the other way around," he said. "We don't want it to be a magic show."

As for revealing his tricks to the cast and crew, Phillips said he doled out just enough information -- and hopefully not too much to ruin any performances they might see by other touring magicians.

"Everyone is respectful of the secrets," he said.

After agreeing to the project, he received a draft of the script with the basic ideas of where illusions would come into play. Phillips went into his library of magic books and performance footage to complete several months of research on options and what was technically possible.

Phillips likes the work of old-school magicians from a time when magic was a legitimate performance art, he said.

"We ended up with a few illusions that are based on often very old magic principles at their basic foundation, but have been custom tailored to this storyline," he said. "It's interesting to bring these old principles to the new story he created.

"We wanted illusions that had a little bit of spooky to them and a surprise factor. We've worked on things from that angle. We're not interested in the cliché -- glitter-covered plastic props."

Phillips said he prefers illusions that are psychological. He's more edgy and serious than the birthday party magician.

He has one move in his shows that includes eating a razor blade.

Phillips worked with the cast and crew during an all-day workshop, and Jason Page, who plays the Amazing Arcana, said it was a hands-on way to learn.

"It was part of the draw, to learn a skill to portray something I haven't done before," Page said. "It's about mannerisms and misdirection. It's been fun getting into the skin of someone who does that."

Page performed his trick while Bennett recorded it on his phone and was surprised that something so simple could work so well, he said.

"This is one of those things where there are a lot of moving parts to this show," Ahasay said. "It's very cinematic in some ways. So the technical and the illusion aspects are extremely important."

Theories of theater

This past summer, Bennett and his wife, Renegade executive director Katy Helbacka, went to New York City to "Sleep No More," interactive theater by a British theater company. The play is set in a warehouse, and the audience wears carnival masks as it moves from floor to floor and room to room in what the New York Times called "a voyeur's delight."

"It's very immersive," Bennett said. "We love that sort of stuff. That's the next wave of theater."

While Renegade Theater Company hasn't attempted something close to this level, "Ghost Light" takes a few steps in this direction. They've pushed for more sophisticated special effects -- including hiring a specialist for the 2011 production of "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" to give it the feel of something Tarantino-esque. With this show, they've moved the action off the stage and will use the entire theater space.

"We sort of have this idea that theater can be far more entertaining than a movie," Bennett said. "We tend to gravitate more toward that. The newer generation of theatergoers is primed for that entertainment. To get them to love it, you have to show them theater can do what film does, but it's better because it does it five feet in front of your face."

Go see it

What: Renegade Theater Company's "Ghost Light," by Andy Bennett

When: Opens 8 p.m. today, runs 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays through Oct. 27

Where: Teatro Zuccone, 222 E. Superior St.

Tickets: $15 adults, $12 students at teatrozuccone.com or by calling (218) 336-1414

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