It's hard to call a spade a spade when Jason Ladanye is performing. Sometimes the club you were just looking at is now a heart, or he has memorized a deck of cards beginning to end. Part magic and part con, Ladanye's tricks are never quite what they seem.
As a seven-year-old, Ladanye felt like his mind had "blown up" after watching David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear on television in 1983. It was the beginning of a lifelong passion. Like any child infatuated with magic, he began to dabble in classic, prop-heavy tricks but soon realized there were problems in his pursuit of magic. "There were practical problems—like when I told my mom I wanted to make the car disappear, or I asked her to wrap me in chains and throw me in the pool," he says. Around 15, he found the answer to his troubles: playing cards.
While the origin of card tricks is murky, it is widely believed that some form of card magic has been around as long as playing cards have existed—dating back to the late 14th century. Card manipulation, as it's known today, seems to have been born with Johann Nepomuk Hofzinser, an Austrian magician called the Father of Card Magic. Hofzinser preferred intimate gatherings and a minimalist approach to his tricks—many of which are still performed today, like the Hofzinser Fan Force. (The force involves spreading a deck of cards and having an audience member choose a card. The magician flashes that card to the audience, shuffles the cards together, and in one flourish reveals the chosen card at the bottom of the deck.) Dai Vernon (1894-1992), known as The Professor, and one of the most famous modern card magicians, helped popularize The Expert at the Card Table—arguably the most influential text about card manipulation. It's a book that Jason Ladanye knows well.
Even though he often reads books about card magic dating back to the early 1900s, Ladanye finds himself drawn more to the technical aspects of the art. He's always trying to find ways to make his tricks more complex, and typically rehearses each trick for months before performing it during an informal show. It's during live performances that he learns the most about a trick—what works and what doesn't, and the most effective ways of shocking the audience. "I'm always looking for more connection," he says. "If I can find a way to reach more people or get a better reaction, I will try to do that. There's nothing more rewarding than hearing those gasps."
In his gambling-themed show, Ladanye takes an ordinary deck of cards and shows how dangerous they can be in the right hands—his own. "You can lose $10 million on the turning over of a card," he says. "Fortunes can be made or lost on one playing card." Ladanye builds his shows around that inherent intrigue and suspense while also exploiting the built-in intimacy of playing cards. During his performances, he will often call on the audience to participate by counting cards or confirming things—allowing them to be complicit in the con from the safety of their seats.
People often feel the need to come up to Ladanye after his shows because they are confounded by his sleight of hand. "They tell me 'I saw you do it, you explained it to me, but I still can't believe it happened,'" he says. While he understands the surreal feeling of trying to understand the unexplainable, it's not a feeling Ladanye experiences often. "It's been forever since I've been fooled," he says. "When I get conned, I love it."
"Cons, Cheats & Scams: The Extraordinary Card Magic of Jason Ladanye" will be performed at the Bridge Street Theatre on Saturday, February 18, at 7:30pm and Sunday, February 19, at 2pm. Tickets are $20. (518) 943-3818.