Comic 'Fooling Buddha' mixes magic with nostalgia at First Folio
Actor and magician David Kovac has a great story to share -- namely his own. Kovac's one-man comedy, "Fooling Buddha," now receiving a fun world-premiere run by First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook, revolves around his memories of being raised as a Buddhist in 1970s Milwaukee.
Through "Fooling Buddha," Kovac looks back to the seminal religious and childhood experiences that shaped the course of his life and his chosen career as an entertainer. Kovac serves up plenty of laughs to match with his personal nostalgia, plus facts about Milwaukee at the time via a retro carousel slide projector.
As a child, Kovac soon became aware that his parents' decision to raise their children as Buddhists made him stand out as an oddity to his schoolmates -- particularly to bullies. As a defense, Kovac looked to find ways to deflect his peers' taunts. One was becoming a quick-witted class clown, much to the dismay of teachers and school administrators at his junior high.
Kovac also reveals how he was fascinated by the world of sleight-of-hand magic, and how it provided solace and motivation.
"Fooling Buddha" is not an out-and-out "magic show." But Kovac deploys a few basic illusionist tricks with cards and balloon animals to help illustrate aspects of Buddhist philosophies.
These simple tricks have an autobiographical aspect as well. Kovac dramatizes them in context to his childhood visits to the long-gone Milwaukee magic shop called The House of Illusion.
These delightful segments reveal how Kovac was indoctrinated into the subculture of magicians and their showbiz secrets. Kovac maintains a joyful tone with constant smiles and witty banter. Yet by the show's end, these tricks are called into question when the unhappy fates of Kovac's early mentors are revealed in quick succession.
Kovac keeps the audience laughing and entertained throughout "Fooling Buddha," though one of my small criticisms is that he could do a more articulate job of highlighting the show's central conflicts to beef up some of the drama, such as when Kovac's anger conflicts with his religious upbringing. "Fooling Buddha" plays like a series of entertaining personal vignettes that endeavor to be enlightening, though the teachings don't always linger in the memory as much as Kovac may wish.
Yet Kovac's continually clever onstage presence is a droll delight, and director/co-developer Patrick New helps keep audiences engaged throughout the show's finely paced 90 minutes.
"Fooling Buddha" is also handsomely designed. Angela Weber Miller's sets fold out like an oversize cabinet of curiosities to reveal key locations in Kovac's early life, including his family's dated kitchen, the magic shop and his school.
You don't have to know Milwaukee like the back of your hand to enjoy Kovac's laughs and childhood philosophical dilemmas, though the world premiere would have been a natural for Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. For now, just be grateful that the suburbs got to see it first.
"Fooling Buddha"★ ★ ★
Location: First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st Street and Route 83, Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067, firstfolio.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Thursday and Sunday, extra 4 p.m. Saturday matinees April 16 and 23; runs through Sunday, April 24
Tickets: $29-$39; $25-$35 seniors and students
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission
Parking: Free lots nearby
Rating: Largely for general audiences