Theatrical ‘Magic’ in the Air at 2 Distinctive Chicago Shows

Francis Guinan performs in the Goodman Theatre’s “The Magic Play.” (Liz Lauren / Goodman Theatre)Francis Guinan performs in the Goodman Theatre’s “The Magic Play.” (Liz Lauren / Goodman Theatre)

While the Cubs were making the Indians disappear last week, the Goodman Theatre unveiled “The Magic Play,” a show that dares to invite audience members to participate in the onstage drama of a magician whose desire for perfection threatens his personal life.

Andrew Hinderaker’s play is laced with astonishing magic, and, since the volunteers from the audience change nightly, each performance is one-of-a-kind.

Directed by Halena Kays (“Burning Bluebeard”), the story features the charismatic presence of rising star Sean Parris. A more established star of the stage, Francis Guinan (“August: Osage County”), brings hilarity and a touch of sadness to his role as a second-rate conjuror estranged from his talented son. Brett Schneider anchors the cast with his sympathetic portrait of a distracted magician.

Sean Parris and Brett Schneider in "The Magic Play." (Liz Lauren / Goodman TheatreSean Parris and Brett Schneider in "The Magic Play." (Liz Lauren / Goodman Theatre

The play was originally commissioned by New York City’s venerable Roundabout Theatre Company and developed at the Goodman Theatre’s New Stages Festival in 2014. This world premiere offers theatrical sleight-of-hand by way of creative set design, lighting and projections, and acrobatics from The Actors Gymnasium.

Ultimately, “The Magic Play” reveals that even a skilled magician can be as delicate as a house of cards when love enters his act. “The Magic Play” is at the Goodman Theatre through Nov. 20. 

 A more traditional magic show, “The Magic Parlour” returns to an unusual but ideal stage at the historic Palmer House Hilton. In this upscale, old-fashioned setting – it was once the ladies’ tea room at the hotel – cocktail attire is encouraged and the audience is treated like adults.

Magician Dennis Watkins performs in “The Magic Parlour” at the Palmer House. (Ryan Borque)Magician Dennis Watkins performs in “The Magic Parlour” at the Palmer House. (Ryan Borque)

Magician Dennis Watkins performs dazzling magic on an intimate scale – the small crowd is limited to just 40 people – but the tricks make a big impression. Watkins’ numerical mind-reading will make you wish he’d choose your Lotto numbers, and his up-close card tricks may make you question reality.

Watkins is a member of The House Theatre of Chicago, where he starred in the hit show “Death and Harry Houdini.” In “The Magic Parlour,” his patter blends personal history with professional mystery. He learned magic from his grandfather, who managed a store in Dallas called Magicland.

Performances of “The Magic Parlour” are limited to just 40 people. (Ryan Borque)Performances of “The Magic Parlour” are limited to just 40 people. (Ryan Borque)

“From the time I was a very young boy, my grandfather started teaching me sleight-of-hand,” Watkins told Chicago Tonight in 2007. “I was performing at neighborhood events, community events and birthday parties by the time I was 8 or 9 years old.”

“The Magic Parlour” runs Fridays and Saturdays at the Palmer House. The show is ongoing.

The performances are theatrically quite different, but “The Magic Parlour” and “The Magic Play” both stage illusions of grandeur while celebrating the poetry of disbelief.


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