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An illustration of Avner by Al HirschfeldThe logo of Genii Magazine


Exceptions to Gravity

By Max Maven | January 1996

Scan of original article

Avner raises his finger to his lips in a shh gesture

So what’s this guy doing on the cover of a magicians magazine? Is he a magician? Well, not exactly, although he does do a splendid rendition of Slydini’s Paper Balls Over the Head while communicating via kazoo, and a cleverly tearless version of the Anderson Newspaper Tear, and what is arguably the world’s only logical production of a bouquet of spring flowers.

Okay, so is he a juggler? Not really, even though he does juggle baseball bats, popcorn kernels, and damn near anything else he can get his hands on.

Maybe he’s a clown. After all, he’s got the red nose, and he does silly stuff like spitting water and making a trumpet out of a soda straw and almost eating a chair, But that’s not it.

An acrobat, perhaps? He leaps into a forward roll over a spectator’s head, and walks a slack rope. Or a balancer, who supports a peacock feather on his nose and a stepladder on his chin. Or a puppeteer, who animates a mouse that, a moment before, was a handkerchief. Or a contortionist, who stretches and twists his limbs in impossible ways. Or a storyteller, with an elaborate wordless script in which he eats a meal of napkins. Or a comedian, or a mime, or a dancer.

The simple fact is that trying to define Avner Eisenberg is like trying to do a handstand supported by nothing more than a rolled-up piece of cloth.

Oh, yeah—he does that in his show, too. And it is quite a show.

Avner the Eccentric had a critically acclaimed run at the Lamb’s Theater on Broadway during the 1984-85 season. ABC television’s Joel Siegal enthused, “I laughed for two solid hours. The show only lasted an hour and a half.”

The New York Times concurred. Mel Gussow wrote that Avner is “a connoisseur of laughter…the fun is contagious.”

Since then, he’s taken his show literally around the world, performing in theaters and television studios from Tokyo to Tel Aviv, and just about everywhere in between. At the Edinburgh Festival, Scotland’s annual theatrical event, he won the New Faces award. At the International Festival du Cirque in Montc Carlo he won a special jury award.

Okay, if we can’t define the performer, perhaps we can define the show. What’s it about That, too, is difficult to say; it’s hard to analyze something when you’re laughing convulsively. But let’s try.

In the course of the show, disparate elements of the physical world appear to scheme together to wreak havoc on the hapless Eccentric. Things go surprisingly wrong A box, when opened, is upside down, allowing its contents to scatter. A broom, recruited to clean up the mess, promptly falls apart. His sweater enters the fray, tangling itself with th e broom handle and dislodging his hat. Surely, this is a deliberate plot.

Matches insolently burn out, just a moment too soon to be usable. Objects disdainfully drop, just a bit too far to be reachable.

Jeanne Cooper of the Boston Globe dubbed his predicament “the world [as] a game of pickup sticks gone horribly awry.” It seems that the only explanation is a conspiracy theory worthy of Oliver Stone.

But, in this show—as in any good magic show, which suggest s where this analysis is heading-things may not be what they appear to be. The surprises continue, but not always with Avner as the victim. Indeed, at times the surprise is not that things fall apart, but rather that they impossibly come together. The dislodged hat keeps returning to his head, in increasingly unlikely sequences of action somewhat akin to a complex multi-cushion shot in billiards that takes place in mid-air. You begin to wonder if those mysterious forces behind this conspiracy are not as malevolent as they seemed at first. In fact, they just might be benign, following some inscrutable game plan.

As the show progresses, a delicate shifting of audience perception takes place. In a chapter on Avner in the 1988 book “Acrobats of the Soul,” Ron Jenkins describes this as “pity transformed into awe.”

The evolution is subtle, so much so that it cannot be accurately tracked. It’s something like watching the hands of a clock You don’t see them move forward, but at some point you realize that they have.

And then there’s an occurrence that makes everything clear, in one elegant instant. It comes during a routine wherein Avner is diligently involved in the activity of stacking paper cups. Lots of paper cups. So many that the resulting tower is completely unstable, swaying and twisting and surely about to topple at any moment. Avner lurches around the stage, trying desperately to maintain the paper tower. He’s just about gained control, when a single cup comes loose from the bottom of the stack, falls to the floor, and rolls out of reach.

It is a supremely frustrating dilemma. He can’t put the stack down; it would spill apart immediately. He can’t even move over to the stray cup, for to do so would destroy the fragile stability just achieved. And now comes an extraordinary event. He leans over, and blows on the runaway cup. It responds by rolling on its beveled side, moving in a graceful arc that brings it directly, perfectly, to the edge of his foot, from where he is able to calmly pick it up and return it to the stack.

And suddenly it dawns on you There is a conspiracy taking place on that stage. But it is not against Avner; it is with him. The entire physical universe is in collusion with this guy wearing the red nose.

And that’s why he’s on the cover of this magazine. Because traditional theatrical conjurors do things that create the illusion of taming the forces of nature, and that is precisely what Avner does. The difference is that, in his case, it’s not entirely clear that it’s an illusion.

It is, of course, a theatrical construct based on finely honed skills. To my knowledge there is no bloodsigned contract smelling of brimstone tucked away in the back pocket of Avner’s baggy pants. There is, however, a specific contract between the performer and his audience. He addresses this fact in a tidy bit of foreshadowing at the top of his show, where he pauses for a moment in the middle off sweeping the stage, takes out a handkerchief, and blows his nose-not the red plastic one, the real one. The fake one, held in place by an undisguised strand of elastic, is pulled out of the way to accommodate this nasal purgation. And, with that utilitarian activity, he violates the most basic premise of clowning that the clown is, ostensibly, real; a genuine caricature of the human species.

The point made by this almost casual violation is an important codicil to that contract You know it’s artificial, and he knows that you know. And paradoxically, it is that very knowing that allows you to be drawn into the experience.

Much has been written on the problem magicians face in trying to transcend the challenge relationship that so often causes an audience to approach a performance of conjuring as an irritating series of puzzles. In Avner’s case, that antagonistic relationship doesn’t exist. He presents a cohesive world on stage, and pulls you in. And, once you’re inside that world, the whole issue of challenge between performer and audience becomes moot.

This pulling in is quite literal, for much of his show involves interaction with members of the audience, many of whom are brought on stage to participate in the skillfully orchestrated proceedings. Avner is purposeful about this. Offstage, where he has the luxury of spoken communication, he sums up this aspect of his show “You thought you could just come and sit… No. You’re the audience, and you’ve got work to do.”

It is work that is rewarded, for as Avner’s story unfolds over the course of the evening, the audience experiences its own evolution, with a host of perks along the way. They’re tickled, amazed, and startled. The latter is a term not often heard in theatrical discussions, but to Avner it’s significant. He calls it the “startle reflex,” and contends that it “is one of our hard-wired features and comes as standard equipment on all models of human beings. It is both a basic survival tool and a source of much laughter. When we see a cartoon mouse jump up, do a degree turn and hit the ground already running, we both laugh and experience a sense of identification. When we are startled we react in much the same manner.”

He continues, “The startle reflex triggers our fight-or-flight mechanism. We gasp in a breath of air and tense our muscles when we are startled. If it becomes immediately clear that we are in no danger, our fight-or-flight system shuts down, the adrenalin level subsides, and we have to get rid of the tension and the air we took on board. The tension is what holds the air in, and once that is gone the air comes back out as involuntarily as it went in. In other words, we laugh. “I think much of the appeal of magic, and indeed, why most magic works, is because it startles us. Babies love to be startled. So many games we play with infants revolve around startling them peek-a-boo, gotcha, etc. It titillates them and makes them howl with laughter. And we like it, too.”

There’s no question that audiences like Avner. At last year’s FISM convention in Yokohama, Japan, he appeared on the final night’s gala show. The huge theater was filled with a mixture of magicians and lay people of all ages, from a few dozen different countries. Despite the wide range of linguistic and cultural reference points, almost five thousand people responded as one, startled into knowing laughter.

And in laughing, they not only found themselves in an exhilarating excursion of shared mirth; they also learned something about the human condition.

Because that, in the end, is what Avner’s show is all about. Life, as we all know empirically, is a torrent of unexpected conjunctions. Sometimes, things do fall apart at the worst possible moment. Sometimes, things do come together in ways more serendipitous than we could ever imagine. We’re constantly startled, and rarely ready to cope. But, as Avner’s art reminds us, we get a choice We can battle against the silent conspiracy, or join with it.

So, maybe after all is said and done, he’s actually a physician. At the very least, it’s certain that if you have the chance to experience a performance by Avner the Eccentric, you’ll come out feeling a lot better than when you came in.

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