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Luminato highlights: You haven’t seen magic tricks till you’ve seen Steve Cohen

Magician Steve Cohen.

Clay McBride

Monday evening: George Brown House, an Ontario heritage building situated just south of the University of Toronto, is named, of course, after the distinguished Father of Confederation and founder of The Globe, the newspaper that became the newspaper you are reading. Normally off-limits to the great unwashed, Brown's stately home was the venue chosen by Luminato's go-to magic man, David Ben, to showcase the extraordinary legerdemain of American magician Steve Cohen.

The setting proved an apt backdrop for Cohen's act, which owes a considerable debt to Johann Hofzinser, the 19th-century Austrian known as the father of card magic. At New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Cohen's unofficial home, he typically entertains audiences of no more than 50. For the Toronto cohort, only slightly larger, the diminutive Cohen – nattily attired in morning coat, waistcoat and striped trousers – deftly stick-handled his way through a series of jaw-dropping tricks, each seemingly more difficult than the last.

Given the intimacy, sitting only a few feet away from the cloth-covered table on which Cohen performs, you'd think you'd be able to deconstruct – to see precisely how he does what he does. You'd be wrong. The expressions I heard most from dazzled patrons were "how the bleep did he do that?" and "Oh my God." Which may be why Woody Allen, one of dozens of notable personages for whom Cohen has performed, was moved to call his show "a religious experience."

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In one routine, Cohen vaulted playing cards into a three-somersault flip and landed them exactly between two previously identified cards – in a deck shuffled and cut by audience members. In another – a trick learned, he said, in Japan – he collected three rings from the crowd and, stirring them in a glass, managed to link in a chain, and then unlink. In another, he managed to replace a U.S. coin under a bowler hat with a five-pound brick.

Later, he had us write our names and three interesting facts about ourselves on slips of paper. From these, duly collected and shuffled, he picked several and started identifying their rightful owners: an athlete who finished second in a 2009 snowboarding competition; a German-born woman who was a surviving twin; a man who planned a snorkelling holiday; the name of a pet dog; a dessert someone's mother had baked. I have a vague clue about how this ostensible feat of Kreskinesque mentalism might be done, but my lips are sealed.

The most spectacular coup, in my judgment, was something Cohen called the Think-a-Drink trick, which apparently dates from the years of vaudeville. Again using slips of paper, he had us write the name of our favourite drink. From the collection, five were randomly selected by audience members, so Cohen had no say in what drinks were chosen. Then, as each drink was declared – sequentially, a mojito, Blue Gatorade, a Manhattan, a cabernet sauvignon and a chocolate milkshake – Cohen used a magic teapot to pour a shot glass full of the exact drink.

All of this, by the way, delivered with not a little panache, off-the-cuff wit and tidbits of personal biography (Cohen spent six years living in Tokyo and is fluent in Japanese).

Not surprisingly, all of his Luminato shows are sell-outs. But he's a heck of a reason to go to New York.

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