“Ya, ya, ya, not just the illusions, but being from Germany with a funny accent, that’s a good combination,” says 30-year-old Jan (pronounced “Yon”) Rouven, the Riviera’s in-house magician whose best trick might be convincing people he’s really as sweetly guileless as he seems.
Apparently, it’s the one thing he does in the Starlite Theatre that’s thoroughly devoid of trickery. Forgive him if he hasn’t fully caught on to American idioms yet—“jumping on the bandwagon” for him is “jumping on the train” and “public figure” is “person of life”—but the Cologne-born illusionist is one of the most disarmingly likable magic men in town.
“I always say he is really too nice for this world,” says Frank Alfter, producer of Rouven’s show, Illusions. “He gives autographs after the show for hours. If I did not stop him, he would go to 4 in the morning.”
Catching Rouven’s act is akin to watching an excited 10-year-old performing for Ma and Pa in the family living room, flush with the thrill of discovery of his magical skills and eager to share—but writ large, with considerably more danger and powerful payoffs.
Flanked by five assistant/dancers who rock out to recorded remixes by the likes of Adele and Katy Perry, he gently banters with the audience with an aw-shucks/gee-whiz charm that lends a soothing counterpoint to illusions that send our hearts into our throats.
“Don’t try this at home, it’s dangerous—try it at a friend’s home,” he quips before defying not just the laws of nature but the laws of sanity.
Handcuffed inside a pyramid-shaped box, he escapes giant, spinning industrial blades, then emerges from offstage, unscathed, wearing an ornate robe. Chained shoulder-to-toe, he frees himself from a watery prison inside a tank. Twisting the concept of Russian roulette, he seemingly risks impalement when he hides large, sharp knives—one upturned—under paper bags and relies on an audience member’s intuition for choosing which ones are safe before he smashes his hand down on them.
Admittedly, his performance digs don’t match the audacity of his act, his “Blades of Doom,” “Bed of Death” and other prestidigitator props crammed onto the modest stage in the bandbox-y Starlite on the nose-bleed third floor of stacked showrooms in the rear of the old-guard Riviera.
An upgrade is in order. “But to be on the Strip, we are pretty full six nights a week, so that’s good,” Rouven says. “The stage could be a little bigger, but it’s intimate, people sit up close, it’s talking.”
Dude’s not into bitching. … Well, perhaps a little bitching.
You may recall a hocus-pocus dustup in May when he accused hotshot conjurer Criss Angel of purloining his “Bed of Death” illusion by filming a similar stunt on Fremont Street for Angel’s Spike TV series bowing in October. Angel swiped it, Rouven says, after seeing him perform it at the Clarion Hotel, where Rouven’s show was based in 2011 before moving to the Riviera last year.
In “Bed of Death,” Rouven lays on a wooden table as an audience volunteer randomly releases ropes attached to swords poised to fall around his body—with one ominously dangling directly over his heart. Addressing Rouven’s allegation, a Spike spokesman credited the inspiration to Clive Barker’s 1995 horror film, Lord of Illusions. Responding at the time, Alfter conceded the movie birthed the idea, but said Rouven turned it into an onstage illusion.
Asked about it now, Rouven prefers to leave it in the recent past. “I don’t wanna be no longer the person who accuses him of something,” Rouven says. “And he never mentions my name so I no longer want to mention his.” … Well, almost never.
During his version of the prediction-in-a-box trick—in which he proves to have accurately written down on paper beforehand the answers a volunteer gives to certain questions—a candle is brought out by an assistant in full view of the audience while the recruit can’t see it.
“I learned that one from Criss Angel,” he tells the crowd. (After a recent show, Rouven noted that he’s developing a new illusion. “I never saw it on another magic show,” he says. “I won’t invite Criss Angel to see that show.”)
Known in some circles as “the man with nine lives” for his perilous escape artistry, Rouven says he was reminded of the necessity of vigilance in his act after Cirque du Soleil acrobat Sarah Guillot-Guyard died on June 29 in a fall at Kà.
“That’s the danger of what I’m doing, too,” Rouven says. “Because I do it every night, I get used to it and forget about the danger. It’s like a chef who makes the same sauce every day. If he puts too much of something into it, people might complain but they wouldn’t die.”
Just then, Rouven looks toward his stage props from his dressing room as showtime nears. “When I finish this interview,” he says, “I’m checking it again.”
Illusions Starring Jan Rouven
Starlite Theatre at the Riviera, 7 p.m. Sat-Thu, $59 and up, 794-9433, RivieraHotel.com.