It’s axiomatic by now: How artists in every genre sublimate their greatest pain into their work. Start with the myth of Orpheus, who parlayed loss of his new bride into song, and continue the story with Pagliacci—the real tears of the clown.
The latest stop on this train is magic! Comedy Workshop Productions has just opened the run of a darkly funny new comedy about one woman’s miraculous escape from the secrets of her family’s tragic, challenging past. Author, stand-up comedian, and magician Judy Carter heads the three-person cast of A Death-Defying Escape! The 90-minute intermissionless show will “disappear weekly” at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Hollywood, and also stream online.
The two other performers with Carter, all directed by Lee Costello, are Kevin Scott Allen and Lyndsi LaRose, who each play a number of auxiliary roles—parents, a grandmother, fellow (male) magicians, a much younger lover.
The play follows Carter’s autobiographical course in not exactly chronological order. The traumas and blows of early family life keep recurring as troubling dreams and fears. Even without the magic part, her conquest over a difficult past is itself inspiring. The magic tricks performed live on stage are not just a sideshow but integrally tied to her story. “A performer has to push those feelings down.”
“Growing up with a sister with cerebral palsy, a narcissistic mother, and an abusive father, I dreamed of becoming a magician,” says Carter. “I didn’t want to saw women in half; I wanted the power to put them back together. The power to make my father disappear and levitate my sister Marsha out of her wheelchair.”
Carter broke gender barriers to become one of America’s first female magicians. But she has mastered a great deal more than tricks with playing cards. She’s found the secret to controlling the demons of her own life. A Death-Defying Escape references the famous stuntman Houdini’s extraordinary feats in a heartwarming tale of other forms of escape—societal and psychological—about overcoming emotional shackles to find love. As difficult as Houdini’s moves were, could they possibly compare to “escaping from the closet in the 1980s” she asks.
She discovered at age 10 that the messes in her family life were great fodder for comedy. She overcame a speech impediment and began doing magic shows for birthday parties — leading to a full-page story in the Los Angeles Times. She was the first woman to perform at the Magic Castle Close-Up Gallery in Hollywood, where an established older magician literally picked her up and threw her out because “Cards are for men.” Not that the much younger Doug Henning was any prince either.
But she was unstoppable. She continued developing her own style of magic, creating a death-defying escape from her grandmother’s girdle and sawing a man in half—telltale signs that she was a budding, if at first unconscious lesbian—becoming a role model for the women’s movement not averse to including an anti-misogyny joke or two. Over time, she has appeared on over 100 TV shows and four comedy cable specials, as well as opening for Prince and playing Vegas. Finding herself single at 60, she discovered new love with a woman 40 years younger than herself, who loves the film Carol and has seen it seven times.
In addition to her stage performance, Carter is an author, international keynote speaker, and TED Talker. She’s the author of “The Comedy Bible” (Simon & Schuster), which went on to become the definitive book on turning problems into punchlines, leading to an interview with Oprah Winfrey. Her other books include The Message of You: Turn Your Life Story into a Money-Making Speaking Career (St. Martin’s Press), The Homo Handbook (Fireside Books), Stand-up Comedy: The Book (Random House), and her recent The New Comedy Bible, which has been published in seven countries. Her message of using humor as a transformational tool led to her being featured in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times and on CNN, as well as being a frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered.
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As much as Carter’s play is about self-discovery, part of the journey is cracking the emotional locks on her love-deprived childhood. Her mother was a depressive for much of her life, and her father was a heavy drinker with high fences keeping others out, while her sister Marsha needed 24-hour attention because of her severe genetic condition. Her grandmother was constantly plagued by fears of being chased down by anti-Semites in the old country.
At what point does a person start seeing their own family reality with such clear eyes? The chair specially built for her sister to keep her sitting upright would later become incorporated into Judy’s act. What is a magic show in essence (and the show includes some audience-interactive features)? “Gaslighting you for fun!” And didn’t your parents basically do that to you? Make you believe things that were not true, disappearing things, even your own sister, without explanation? Learning to trust anyone is scary!
Perhaps if there’s a single message Carter is trying to leave with her audience, it could be reduced to this quote from the show, addressed to the audience: “Live your life, people! It passes so quickly.”
Having a family member with cerebral palsy or some other demanding condition puts tremendous stress on parents and siblings alike. What Carter’s play does not touch on is whether or not there were any publicly funded programs that would have enabled Marsha to remain at home with her family and still receive optimum care while removing some of that burden off the family. Was institutionalization the only alternative, and a cruel one at that? And yet apparently, Marsha was eventually able to find a loving home to be adopted into for her remaining years. No wonder issues of ability and disability figure so prominently into contemporary demands as we imagine a more just society. The solutions cannot be left to the anarchy of individual struggling families.
The creative team for A Death-Defying Escape! includes scenic designer and magic illusion creator Craig Dickens, who has created illusions for David Copperfield; lighting designer Matt Richter; and sound and projections designer Nick Foran. The production stage manager is Lauren McCuen. Gabrieal Griego produces for Comedy Workshop Productions.
Carter is clearly the star of this show, but in the time-honored magician act, her assistants are critical to the illusion. Lyndsi LaRose and Kevin Scott Allen are both terrific, scurrying around to stand in as probably a dozen or more small roles.
A Death-Defying Escape! is an inspiring and funny show appropriate for ages 15 and up; it includes mature content and is not intended for young audiences.
Performances of A Death-Defying Escape! take place Sat. at 8 p.m. and Sun. at 3 p.m. through May 15. The production will become available for online streaming beginning April 9. The Hudson Guild Theatre is located at 6539 Santa Monica Blvd. Los Angeles 90038. Proof of vaccination (including booster if eligible) is required for admission. Temperature checks will be performed on all patrons before entering the theater. The theater is wheelchair accessible.
To purchase tickets for the in-person show or the virtual stream, visit www.deathdefyingescape.com.