Update - a magician's viewpoint.
I got to see the final performance of The Mystery of Chung Ling Soo this afternoon. The show has gained a significant bundle of excellent reviews this year, and I was keen to make it along. I think having some background knowledge (and make time to read through the first couple of pages of the Genii article before I left the house) helped in the enjoyment, but I'm certain that the play would be as fascinating to a layman as it was to a jaded hack like me.
The stage opens to William Robinson introducing the concept to the audience, that we were not here to see mere 'tricks', but to witness the 'truths' of the Chinese Conjourer. During this address Rob flourishes with an Electric Deck (possibly to signify the difference between the card 'tricks' he did and the magical 'truths' which Soo performed), and this segment contains the first 'real' magical happening when Rob dissappears from the stage in a quite visual (or not, come to think about it) manner. If this was one of Joe's ideas the actors got the timing exactly right.
From here we see Rob and Soo checking the rifles in the dressing room, and at this point it is assumed that they are indeed separate people. Soo goes onstage to enact the Bullet Catching Trick, and is shot by the third rifle (pedant warning - the Steinmeyer article mentions only two rifles were used...) Soo is shot and lies on the large chest that sits in the centre of the stage. A voice over (from the live pianist and percussionist, who did a fantastic job) tells us that the world famous magician has been fatally shot. Robinson is interviewed by the police about his relationship with Soo, and at this point things begin to hint at the double life he led.
When asked how he met Soo we are shown the most amusing part of the play, where Robinson (as he was, performing card tricks on stage) tries to impress a booking agent from the Folies Bergere in Paris by putting an illusion into the show at the last minute. That this illusion seems to have falled off the back of a lorry and fails to work results in Robinson being jeered off stage and he and his wife Dotty wondering what is going to happen next.
While Dotty is getting changed Rob starts to think and Soo floats up from within the trunk. He changes a fan of cards into an oriental fan and generally plants the seed.
From here we skip to Soo's runs in London, his challenge from Ching Ling Foo and subsequent rise to fame and fortune. Several of his illusions are described and played out in mime, notably the Fishing for Gold (and the resultant explanation to the Kaiser) and the Divorce Engine. However, the cracks begin to show as Dotty threatens to go out of the theatre out of character, and Rob's increasing frustration at being a 'nobody'.
Soo never speaks in the production - save for one word which is both a jolt and completely understandable in context - and all his dialogue is spoken by Rob as the two circle a room and the expressions on Soo's face match perfectly the mood. This dual performance can seem a wee bit strange, but anyone who has endured the Caucasian Chalk Circle might recognise the baby character in the style (and yes, I do realise that that is quite possibly the most pretentious aside in this forum's history).
As the play moves on we see the autopsy of Soo, and his public unmasking as Robinson. The newspaper hacks have a field day with headline puns and we are told that Rob had intended to debut a new act that night (but the secret of the act died with him). In the final scene Soo climbs on top of the trunk and transforms into Robinson in a Sub trunk move that would put many magicians I have seen to shame. That these are actors, and not magicians, is testament to the work they put into the show.
All in all it was an excellent production. My understanding is that it is moving to New York next, and I would urge anyone living East of, say, Chicago and North of, ooh, Jacksonville, to make the effort to see it. You won't be dissappointed.
Take care, Ian