Dennis Watkins of The Magic Parlour Credit: Rich Hein

Magical thinking is both bane and balm. Without a little bit of belief in the possibility of miraculous transformation, I’d probably never get out of bed (especially lately). Yet amid the toxic noise of resolute anti-vaxxers-and-maskers and QAnon, it’s obvious that obdurate faith in the impossible against the tide of science, facts, and reality carries a body count.

Magic shows, on the other hand, offered some of the best forms of escape for me during the shutdown. Jon Tai’s Missed Connections, a live performance presented remotely from his Pittsburgh home through A Red Orchid Theatre last February, created a poignant and cunning twist on the “what if we’d made one different choice that changed our lives” narrative trope. Jay Lee’s contribution to the virtual speakeasy Into the Mist gave us a moving and thoughtful history lesson on the early days of magic and anti-Asian racism in America. David Parr, who ran The Magic Cabaret for years in Chicago, invited us into The Sorcerer’s Lair (courtesy of Poe’s Magic Theatre in Baltimore) for his puckish take on close-up magic with a hint of the macabre.

Close-up magic is one of Chicago’s cultural gifts to the world. We may not have wholly invented it, but like electric blues and improvisational comedy, it’s become entwined with our history (so much so that the Chicago History Museum devoted an exhibit to Chicago magic in 2012). It’s sometimes called “tavern magic,” in reference to about a dozen places around the city in the last century where magicians would work table to table, performing tricks with cards, coins, and other small objects. (Matt Schulien of Schulien’s restaurant was one of the most famous practitioners.) The form depends on intimacy and a sort of collaboration between the performer and the audience members. We’re building the trick together, even if only one of us really understands how it works.

The Magic Parlour and the Magic Lounge
The Magic Parlour, open run, Fri 7 and 9:30 PM, Sat 4, 7, and 9:30 PM; Palmer House Hilton, 17 E. Monroe, 312-300-6803, themagicparlourchicago.com, $79-$89.
The Magic Lounge, open nightly; 5050 N. Clark, 312-366-4500, chicagomagiclounge.com, see website for schedule and ticket information, 21+ (16+ admitted with legal guardian).

Two long-running purveyors of the form—Dennis Watkins’s The Magic Parlour at the Palmer House Hilton and the Magic Lounge in Andersonville—both reopened for business earlier this month. And though they’re not the cheapest ticket in town, they’re worth the splurge if you want to escape the noise and trauma of the day and lose yourself in simple, yet fascinating, feats of prestidigitation and mind reading.

Watkins made the leap into online performance as well this past year, but somehow I had never seen his show either in person or virtually until this month. I’m thoroughly happy to have rectified that situation. The grandson of a magician who ran a magic shop in Dallas, Watkins is a House Theatre of Chicago ensemble member whose performance 20 years ago in the title role in House’s production of Death and Harry Houdini (um, he played Houdini) won wide acclaim. Watkins went on to play the part in nine different productions.

He’s been doing The Magic Parlour, performed in a small events room at the Palmer House for about 50 patrons per show, for ten years. (Currently, COVID-19 restrictions limit the house to fewer than 40, and all patrons must present either proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of showtime. The city’s mask mandate is in effect except when drinking—beer, wine, and soft drinks are included with the ticket.)

In the program note, Watkins talks about his grandfather’s influence on him, steering him away from the desire to do shows involving “spectacle and fog machines and a chorus of dancers to back me up.” His devotion to close-up magic has also taken him into the realm of mind reading; in the “encore room,” (a ticketed postshow option limited to a dozen guests seated around a single table), he explained that he felt moving in that direction brought him closer to the spirit of the late Eugene Burger, a Chicago magician, author, and philosopher whose work valorized both the scholarship and mystery of the art form.

Don’t ask me how any of it works; I’ve long been satisfied with not seeing the man behind the curtain, so to speak. But what comes through clearly is Watkins’s gift for channeling both the acerbic and the transcendent as he walks the tightrope between showman and shaman. Objects collected from audience members appear far away from where we first see them. A theater critic, asked to think of a card, finds her name on that card in a deck later on. (I promise I wasn’t a plant.) Banter mixed with a scosh of Watkins’s personal history carries us through the 90-minute performance and unites us in wonder. After the last 18 months, that’s a fine gift.

Nick Diffatte, courtesy of the Magic Lounge

The Magic Lounge offers a rotating lineup of magicians every night of the week in its cozy speakeasy environment, which houses a front “performance bar,” where you can imbibe sans ticket and get a taste of that old tavern magic from your bartender and other performers, who are hanging around with cards (and probably other things) in their pockets. Ticketed shows run in the Harry Blackstone Cabaret, a 120-seat venue with balcony and different levels of main floor seating with tables, and in the intimate 654 Club (like The Magic Parlour, you can get an aftershow experience there if you’re willing to shell out more cash). 

For those with tickets (available only for the vaxxed as of now, and someone will be checking you in line for proof), you congregate in the small library entrance. The space formerly housed an industrial laundry and apparently functioning dryers are in constant motion as well. A host points out the books and memorabilia surrounding you, before tugging on a volume and opening a hidden door into the performance spaces. Cheesy? Sure. Fun? Absolutely.

The night I came back, the headliner for The Signature Show in the Blackstone space was Nick Diffatte, a veteran of Vegas and late-night television who blends the comic persona of a Gen Z nerd with his brand of close-up magic, involving sight gags (he dons a blue Velcro suit at one point and invites the audience to throw balls at him) and doses of self-deprecation. (“If this works, I’m gonna freak out,” he observes more than once. Of course it does. Again, don’t ask me how.)

An hour prior to the show, several magicians work the tables. I enjoyed personalized tricks from Paige Thompson, Deven Brown, and Justin Purcell. Emcee Jan Rose, a protege of Schulien, gave us a quick-and-dirty history of magic in Chicago, while pointing out that Schulien welcomed women into the boys’ club. Once the show began, Diffatte showed himself a dab hand at picking his assistants from the audience, noting with wry world-weary charm when they got more laughs onstage than he did.  (Diffatte returns to the Magic Lounge with Nick Diffatte: Offbeat, presented as part of the Wednesday Night “Artist in Residence” series October 6-December 22.)

Is it all smoke and mirrors and misdirection? Sure. But unlike so much of what we’re facing these days, the misdirection of a well-trained magician is harmless. It might even be healing. For just a few moments, it’s you, the performer, and the shared belief that what’s happening between us is real, and it matters, even if it disappears in an instant. That’s enough to get me out of bed for now.