When you watch Christian Cagigal's The Collection, at the Exit Theatre, you might find yourself experiencing some of the same thoughts you had watching magic shows as a kid: "Pick me! Oh wait, don't pick me!" "That's so cool! But it has to be fake! But I can't figure out how!"
All the same, The Collection is definitely an adult magic show -- no, not that kind of "adult." Cagigal uses magic in the service of storytelling, and the stories he tells come from his menagerie of bizarre found objects. His playing space has the feel of an artfully arranged and well-dusted attic. Tchotchkes poke out of cabinets and shelves in every corner of the black box theater. The boots and bells and skulls you see are not mere trinkets, however. Each has a dark, storied past. But like the magic tricks, you never know whether the stories are real or made-up. Rather than being straight nonfiction or complete fabrication, they are more likely somewhere in between: wisps of truth shaped and ornamented by an adept storyteller.
In a coup-de-press, Cagigal has asked that critics "not reveal a single thing that happens in order to maintain the surprise and mystery of the show." Speaking generally, then, his tricks are in some cases inspired by a traditional magician's repertoire -- card tricks, knot tying -- while others are sui generis -- drawing on volunteers' ESP to put the audience in the place of the characters in his stories.
Cagigal, in his cardigan, tie and glasses, exudes a Mr. Rogers vibe -- at least until he starts to speak. He purrs sinisterly, lines like, "Is it real? Is it not? You decide," inflected with care in the style of a traditional magician. At other times, he is equally unpolished, humming to himself as he sets up his tricks, or, seeing that a trick isn't going as anticipated, interrupting, "Wait. Let's do that again."
Cagigal has a lively relationship with his audience, seemingly using his magic to select just the right volunteers. He makes self-deprecating jokes for the skeptics but heightens the mystery for those who want to believe (and this being San Francisco, there are quite a few of the latter). He's been doing versions of this show for years, returning to the stage whenever he accrues enough new odds and ends. He's carved out a unique and vital niche in the S.F. theater scene, one that, happily, transcends the usual theater crowd. Even if you don't believe in magic, watching The Collection you can't help but believe, if only for a moment -- or at least to want to.
The Collection continues through April 13 at the Exit Theatre, 156 Eddy St. (at Taylor St.), S.F. Admission is $20-$25.