Peter Duchan’s “Illusionist” Is No Mirage

“The show must go on.”

It’s an old adage — and true. Every theatrical production faces unexpected obstacles.

But Peter Duchan’s “The Illusionist” hit so many roadblocks, you could write a book.

Or at least — as Duchan did — a New York Times story.

Peter Duchan

Online today — and in this coming Sunday’s Arts & Leisure section — the 2001 Staples High School graduate describes the roundabout, almost Sisyphean route he took to bring a musical adaptation of the 2006 film to the stage.

Duchan has had plenty of theatrical success (including collaborating with 2003 Staples grad Justin Paul on “Dogfight”).

But like many other artists, the pandemic put the brakes on most of his work. Two of his regional productions were canceled.

He was heartened that plans for the late 2020 Tokyo premiere of “The Illusionist” — a show he’d co-written in 2016 — were proceeding, with COVID precautions of course.

In July though, he learned that the star had hanged himself. In today’s Times, Duchan writes:

In the past, I’d been suspicious of “the show must go on” — it seemed designed to coerce workers into tolerating unacceptable labor practices — but now I heard an earnest yearning in the phrase. Theater is, by nature, communal. Surely it would be more healing for all involved to gather and perform the show. What would be gained by giving up?

Yes, yes to all of it, yes to anything. We just had to do the show.

The next obstacle came when the director was hospitalized in London with bowel cancer.

Peter Duchan, en route to Tokyo. (Photo from New York Times via Peter Duchan)

In Tokyo, Duchan went to work. Rules were strict.

Upon arriving each day, participants zipped their personal belongings into assigned garment bags, including the face masks worn during their commutes. The production provided a new mask each day, to be worn throughout rehearsal. No eating was permitted in the room. No sharing phone chargers. The schedule included regular “airing breaks.”

Despite the precautions, 7 people — 5 cast members, 2 in the crew — were diagnosed with coronavirus.

To limit the number of people in the theater as much as possible, Duchan returned to New York. He would watch rehearsals remotely — from the other side of the world. With the time difference, he was up most nights until 3 a.m.

The process felt distant, but the thrills were the sort well known to anyone who works in musical theater: hearing the score animated by a full orchestra after years of it played on one piano; seeing Ayako Maeda’s sumptuous, intricate costumes soak up the stage light and sharpen the actors’ characterizations; watching the talented and brooding Kaiho sink his teeth into the role of Eisenheim.

Duchan watched the January 27 opening performance via live feed.

Peter Duchan watched the “Illusionist” Tokyo premiere from New York. (Photo from New York Times via Peter Duchan)

He writes:

During curtain call, the cast wept with joy and relief. Afterward a producer walked her phone to each dressing room so those of us celebrating remotely could shower the cast with congratulations.

Filtered through screens, I could still feel the merry, frenetic backstage energy. Nearly 7,000 miles away, I was able experience the elation of opening night. I was making theater again. We were doing the show.

Two days later, after playing its five scheduled performances, “The Illusionist”closed. Now we wait.

Click here for the full New York Times story.

(Hat tip: Susan Terry)

3 responses to “Peter Duchan’s “Illusionist” Is No Mirage

  1. Bruce McFadden

    I fondly remember Peter’s musical role in our chemistry class’s “Mole Day” celebration at Staples. I respect his determination and wish him the best!

    • Mr. McFadden! It’s Peter. First off, thank you, that’s very kind. And second, I’ve been trying to get in touch with you for three years! I heard through the rumor mill years ago that you might actually have a copy of that Mole Day song I sang with Jessica and Merry. I’m going to reach out to Dan to connect us!

  2. Peter! This is so great! Keep on doing what you’re doing… Miss you!! Sending love! (Kerry)