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  • Angela Allyn

Smart Magic At Chicago Shakes

In January this year, no less than Chicago Shakespeare’s Navy Pier neighbor WBEZ declared a current renaissance of Magic in the Windy City ( Chicago historically was a center for the Golden Age of Magic in the 1890’s to the early 1900’s, when all forms of magic from Parlor to Sleight of Hand to Illusionists would draw crowds at venues all over the region.  Even as it faded elsewhere Chicago continued to have a vibrant and active community, including North America’s oldest family run, continuously operating magic store, Magic Inc. where today you can pick up a few tricks yourself because the staff will help advise and mentor you. At one point there was a magic store on Navy Pier.  So when Chicago Shakespeare decided  to jump onto the Magic train, it needed a truly exceptional show and David Kwong’s The Enigmatist is just the ticket.  Sold out in New York, the New York Times cruciverbalist was inspired as a child by Will Shortz the NPR puzzlemaster and then went to Harvard and studied the history of Magic.  His intellectual bent is obvious in the way he constructs his enigmas and illusions, and his use of everything from cryptology to the periodic table in his Library of Codes setting designed by Brett J. Banakis. He is proudly a nerd and this show is exquisitely crafted.

When you arrive at the 6th floor studio theater, you must come early in order to partake of the Puzzle Garden where you are issued a map (DON’T LOSE IT– you will need it later) where you and your fellow audience members need to solve 4 rather difficult puzzles (there are hints)  (A caveat that most of the puzzles are very visual so my usual plus one who is legally blind would have struggled)The puzzles serve as an introduction to the fantastic character of George Fabyan of Geneva, Illinois, and to the love story of Elizebeth and William Friedman whose cryptologic work became the foundation of the NSA as they cracked serious codes during WWII. While telling this amazing tale, Kwong weaves in layers of  card tricks, seemingly random numbers that become significant, and involves many personal details of audience members in a compelling and satisfying narrative. This show is very smart, and your fellow audience members probably were heads of their classes.  He does a marvelous bit on new words in the Scrabble dictionary,  and how to win at Scrabble,  then does a timed Use All the Randomly Dumped Tiles exercise that of course has a surprise ending. There is also a lot of crossword puzzle information on how they are structured, and then he constructs one before your very eyes.  What Kwong does most masterfully is seemingly to make chaos and randomness meaningful and comprehensible, as if all of the information flowing around us is not only containable but connects us in a way we will come to understand. This is a work that will have you thinking, shaking cobwebs out of your prefrontal cortex and bringing back all that stuff you studied in school. This is a show to bring your tween to, you know, the one who thinks they know it all, and watch their mind be blown. 

The Enigmatist is only playing Tuesdays through Sundays (in the intimate 6th floor theater at Chicago Shakespeare on Navy Pier) from now until June 30th so move fast to get tickets: this show is selling quickly. Pro tip– sit in the front tables for maximum chance at participating. Sit way in back if you are out of practice at puzzles!  For tickets and information go to

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