Making magic modern

by Anna Buckley / Beacon Staff • February 7, 2013

Benzaquin carries a deck of cards with him wherever he goes.
Benzaquin carries a deck of cards with him wherever he goes.

Lee Benzaquin asked the audience gathered before him in the Cabaret for total silence. Thirty seconds passed as he meditated. Then, he said, “Give me the hammer.” Seventeen taps later, Benzaquin had driven a four-inch long steel nail into his nose. 

This act was a part of a magic show, which can be viewed on YouTube, that the senior writing, literature, and publishing major performed last semester, titled, “Stay Alive.”  

Benzaquin, who can be caught with a deck of cards on him wherever he goes, said he initially became interested in magic as a 5-year-old after watching TV shows such as The World’s Greatest Magic and various David Copperfield specials. In middle school, Benzaquin said he would perform magic at children’s birthday parties, spectacles that involved boxes with dragons painted on them, fake rabbits, and many a silk handkerchief. 

Magic took a backseat to drama club in high school, but once he got to Emerson, Benzaquin said he rediscovered his passion for the performance art and focussed more on sleight of hand and card tricks. But it wasn’t until he was sitting in the audience for a show that combined classic New Orleans jazz with Shakespearean sonnet lyrics that he realized he wanted to perform his magic for a college crowd.

“Halfway through the show, I was feeling depressed that I was never going to do something that cool,” he said. “But then, at the end of the show, I realized that I have magic, and I could at least do a magic show, and whether or not it would be as good as the Shakespearean jazz show, it would at least be as unique.” 

And thus, “Stay Alive” came to fruition. 

“The goal with that show was to do more of a one-man show where the magic came second to the stories I was telling,” Benzaquin said. 

That’s where the four-inch nail came into play. Benzaquin said he’s okay with tricks coming second to performance, so even though hammering a nail into one’s face is an old trick, he modernized it by tying it into a story about a hammer his father, a construction worker, gave to him when he was an anxiety-ridden 11-year-old. Having rediscovered it recently, Benzaquin said he realized the hammer was a metaphor for stability, and proceeded to hammer the nail into his face.

Benzaquin is now in the middle of the process of planning a new show, scheduled for March 15 and 16 in the Cabaret, titled “Choose Wisely.”

According to Benzaquin, while his last show was card heavy, this next one will shift focus and involve predictions and choices, allowing the audience to determine the outcome of the performance.

“We’re doing two performances, and it’s incredibly likely that the two nights will be wildly different,” Benzaquin said. “It’s all about how the audience decides how the show is going to go.” 

Benzaquin said it’s always difficult to have to play with free will. In his last show, he bet an audience member $50 that he could beat him at a game of poker with only 10 cards.

“It was my job to quickly learn his personality and then try to subtly influence his decisions about which cards he gives to me and which cards he takes for himself,” Benzaquin said.

Now, with the experience of one show under his belt, Benzaquin is rehearsing for “Choose Wisely” with fellow magician Jeffery Limoncelli.

Limoncelli, a freshman visual media arts major, has also been interested in magic since a young age. Limoncelli worked at Tannen’s Magic shop in New York last summer, where he helped Benzaquin as a customer. But it wasn’t until Benzaquin commented on one of Limoncelli’s posts on the Emerson Facebook page saying he remembered him from the shop that the two became friends.

“He’s very knowledgeable,” Limoncelli said of Benzaquin. “He’s very good at taking the classics of magic and being able to bring them into a modern day.” 

Limoncelli said coming together as two different magicians will prove an interesting experience for the pair. Benzaquin said that though they come from different backgrounds, they both take the same approach to magic.

“I think we’re both sick of a lot of traditional tropes of most magic shows — rabbits, classical music, beautiful assistants, etc.,” Benzaquin said. “We’re trying hard to break the traditions into a billion little pieces and then rebuild them on our own terms.”

Benzaquin said one of their main goals in preparing for the show is deciding how to mesh together different tricks to create a consistent theme.

“A lot of magicians have favorite tricks, so it starts with that, with ‘What do I really want to perform?’ and then it turns into, ‘How do I make this whole show cohesive?” Benzaquin said.

At the heart of it all, Benzaquin said he loves magic because it makes people question basic concepts that they take for granted, such as gravity. Although staying confident can be one of a magician’s main issues, Benzaquin said the complexity of the art can prove to be the most challenging aspect.

“The hardest thing about magic is that it takes a lifetime to learn,” he said. “But once you’ve spent a lifetime, then it becomes easy.”