Sean Masterson stands next to a green baize-covered tale with cordial glasses on it, while another man sits behind the table. Masterson is holding a playing card.
Sean Masterson in Message in a Bottle at Chicago Magic Lounge Credit: Sarah Elizabeth Larson

Sean Masterson is cut in the mold of the classic Chicago close-up magician, with a puckish demeanor and a donnish interest in the history of the art form. Those qualities all appear in his new show at Chicago Magic Lounge, Message in a Bottle.

The backstory comes from a 1912 memoir by impresario Michael B. Leavitt, which Masterson acquired in an online auction. Leavitt outlines the battle for dominance as America’s best magician over a century ago between Alexander Herrmann and Harry Kellar. 

Message in a Bottle Through 6/29: Wed 7 PM; Chicago Magic Lounge, 5050 N. Clark, 312-366-4500, chicagomagiclounge.com, $45-$50.

“Magicians are insanely jealous of one another,” Masterson notes. But the rivalry between Herrmann, the continental Frenchman set to conquer the American continent, and Kellar, the sturdy Pennsylvania Dutch illusionist who relies on “mechanical tricks,” rather than the seemingly more elegant sleight-of-hand popularized by Herrmann, feels like a metaphor for our still-ongoing conflict between Eurocentric elites vs. salt-of-the-earth, think-big American types. 

In reality, neither Herrmann nor Kellar had it easy as kids, but they weren’t inclined to take it easy on each other. Through a series of tricks that also show off Masterson’s ease with the members of the audience he enlists as his volunteers, we see the grit and sweat and grim determination underpinning their careers. It culminates in a fabulously macabre “Dance of the Seven Fools,” involving cordial glasses and playing cards. As always, get to the Magic Lounge early to see other performers work the room.