If daredevil escape artist Andrew Basso has become something of a latter-day Houdini, he has his mother to thank (or blame). An only child, Basso grew up with his parents (his father was a business agent) in Borgo Valsugana, a small town in northern Italy where the annual circus was the biggest entertainment attraction. Basso was 7 when his mother took him to the big top and unknowingly set him on his life path.
“If you knew my mother, you would say she’s Morticia [Addams],” he said last week during a visit to the Twin Cities. “She was very serious, no smiles. But when the circus came, she watched the magician’s act, and laughed out loud. I thought, Aha! He has the power to make my mother laugh. I want to be like him.”
Fast forward to today, and Basso, largely self-taught, has been making people guffaw, swoon and gasp across the globe since he became a professional escapologist in 2003. One of the seven master magicians in “The Illusionists,” which opens Tuesday at the Ordway Center in St. Paul after a spell on Broadway, Basso, 29, has become best known for doing Houdini’s daring Water TortureCell escape act. But unlike Houdini, he does it in the open, without a curtain.
“Magic is all around us in our everyday lives, with technology and all that stuff,” he said. “It’s hard to surprise people. So I have to do something different.”
In the act, Basso is handcuffed, lowered head-first into a water tank the size of an elevator car, then manacled by his ankles. The tank is then locked and the audience watches as he tries, upside down, to free himself.
If he’s totally relaxed, Basso said, he can hold his breath for more than four minutes underwater. But he usually finishes this water cell act in half that time.
‘Can I escape death?’
“The drama is in whether or not I’m able to do it, right?” he said. “I can escape handcuffs, straitjackets, jail, anything. Can I escape death?”
Although magicians take pains to make sure that they’re safe, these thrill-inducing escape artists face real danger. In fact, Basso, who is well-read in the history of his trade, easily recites the names of escapologists who have unwittingly perished, including Genesta, who drowned in the 1930s after failing to make his escape from a milk can, and Jeff Rayburn Hooper, who drowned in a lake after failing to escape his shackles.
Basso himself has had two close calls, including one when “The Illusionists” tour launched in 2012 in Australia.
“It was this big opening, Sydney Opera House, and I was pumped — I just couldn’t get my adrenaline down,” he said. “After 2 minutes and 30 seconds, it was taking longer than normal, and my guys knew that I was in trouble, so they got me out.”
The other close call happened on live Italian TV a few years ago when, during an escape act involving a wooden coffin rigged with explosives and a speeding car, he got severely burned. While he escaped the coffin, the explosion was larger than expected. He suffered burns over his face and hands.
“I haven’t done that trick again, but I would, but different,” he said. “I learned something from it.”
Basso is a fit man whose asymmetrical Mohawk makes him look like an Aztec warrior. But as he swans around the world in a leather suit and shoes that have outward-pointing dog-collar spikes, he’s reading books on magic, psychology, religion, philosophy and science. He’s a magic wonk with a deep appreciation for the history of his craft, and how it has been used in the past. He points out, for example, that historically, shamans with a knowledge of magic commanded huge respect. He also knows that the things that make magic such visceral entertainment can also be misused.
“For me, magic is a faith experience,” he said. “We believe together.”
Basso, who visited the Star Tribune last week, said that in some ways, he has become trapped by his success.
“There are a thousand things I’d like to do, to try, but people want to see what you’re known for,” he said.
In his visit to the newspaper, he performed tricks that unnerved the seasoned journalists and designers who were his audience. One trick involved a coin disappearing from his hand and landing in the hand of a reporter. Another involved turning back the hands of a watch, seemingly by magic.
“I think magic is something that appeals to all of us because we all have dreams that can’t be fulfilled in any other way,” Basso said. “So, when I’m performing, I’m not up there by myself. Everyone’s with me. People hold their breath as I hold my breath. They breathe with me. We all want to escape something, whether it’s relationships or places or feelings. And the way to get there is by magic.”