Extraordinary Stage Show Mixes Magic With a Bounty of Brainteasers at Chicago Shakespeare Theater: Review

Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents “The Enigmatist,” an immersive experience of puzzles and illusion from David Kwong. (Justin Barbin)Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents “The Enigmatist,” an immersive experience of puzzles and illusion from David Kwong. (Justin Barbin)

At times there was more teasing than a brain could handle, and people in the audience yelled “No way!” as the man on stage performed a feat of magic or mental dexterity.

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David Kwong is a magician who also constructs crossword puzzles. As he puts it, “I combine the two nerdiest hobbies into one.”

In his one-man show “The Enigmatist,” Kwong asserts that the disciplines of puzzle-making and magic-making share DNA. In both there is a desire to solve problems and make order out of chaos. Humans are hardwired to figure things out. Or at least try to.

Kwong possesses a mind that processes data at incredible speed. A Harvard graduate, he wrote his honors thesis on magic history, then created crossword puzzles for the New York Times. He was an archivist for master magician Ricky Jay and a magic consultant in Hollywood.

Within his show, Kwong embeds the story of George Fabyan, an eccentric Chicago millionaire of the early 20th century. Fabyan hired top thinkers to find hidden messages in Shakespeare plays, seeking to prove that Sir Francis Bacon was the true author of the works. They didn’t prove it, but Fabyan launched the careers of the cryptologists who later led the Allied code-breaking efforts in World War II.

Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents “The Enigmatist,” an immersive experience of puzzles and illusion from David Kwong. (Jeff Lorch)Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents “The Enigmatist,” an immersive experience of puzzles and illusion from David Kwong. (Jeff Lorch)

“The Enigmatist” toys with perception and deception — how we register information and how we get fooled. Kwong explores this cognitive misdirection through a startling series of puzzles and prestidigitation.

One highlight is a trick that he invented. In this tour de force, Kwong builds a crossword puzzle before your eyes and weaves illusions into the process. Bits of information boomerang and hit you with the sudden awareness that you’ve been tricked. Things that seem irrelevant, aren’t.

He also conjures a sense of community among audience members, who can participate if they choose. It’s a challenging show for both young and old — yes, it’s family friendly — as Kwong finds patterns in words, numbers, pictures and sound.

Fans of word games will think they died and went to puzzle paradise. “The Enigmatist” melts your mind and makes you wonder: Who are you going to believe, David Kwong or your lying eyes?

“The Enigmatist” is at Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier through June 30. Guests are encouraged, but not required, to arrive early and sharpen their skills on a set of puzzles in the lobby.

The June 13 performance will be followed by a talk between Kwong and WTTW producer and host Geoffrey Baer.


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