Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Memoir magical mix of humour, nostalgia

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It was Vancouver in 1980. All Mark Leiren-Young wanted was to impress the girl he'd had a life-altering crush on since elementary school.

So he did what any 17-year-old boy would do. He enlisted his friends to help create a magic show.

This enjoyable coming-of-age memoir is a follow- up to the Vancouver playwright's 2009 Leacock Medal for Humour winner, Never Shoot a Stampede Queen, about his days as a rookie reporter in Williams Lake, B.C.

He has gone back to his teenage years for Free Magic Secrets Revealed. Inspired by the success at the time of Winnipeg-born illusionist Doug Henning, Mark and his friends created The Initiation, an epic piece of theatre blending magic, hair metal and Tolkienesque mythology into a one-of-a-kind spectacle they were convinced would tour the world.

Having subsequently procured an agent and space at one of Vancouver's downtown theatres, the troupe felt confident that the play would indeed be a success.

Free Magic Secrets Revealed focuses on The Initiation and the shenanigans surrounding the play's creation.

However, it also touches on the myriad anxieties about fitting in and relationships experienced by young men and women on the cusp of adulthood.

The memoir takes place in a seemingly naive and innocent era. The Vietnam War had ended five years earlier, AIDS had not yet become a major issue, and American draft dodgers taught English in Canadian high schools.

While the humour is rather broad at points, Leiren-Young's dry wit and insights into the world of theatre are welcome; a work of this kind could have easily been overcome by starry-eyed nostalgia.

The book's tone belongs more to comic non-fiction than to straightforward memoir about the inner workings of the theatre. Still, even the book's most peculiar episodes, including Mark's stint as an eight-foot-tall Easter bunny and his getting a vanity nose job, feel genuine.

Leiren-Young does a fine job of balancing the more practical elements of show business with the absurdity on stage, even as the entire enterprise seems to be collapsing around his ears.

There is an inherent irony present in the memoir's title, as surely no magician reveals the secrets behind his act to the audience.

What Free Magic Secrets Revealed offers instead is a witty, charming look at a bygone era and a humorous account of the world of make-believe.

Paul R. McCulloch is an arts and culture blogger at paulswinnipeg.blogspot.ca.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 29, 2013 A1

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