Thirteen Letters Across For a Mind-Blowing Show at Chicago Shakespeare

Three types of people go to magic shows. 

The first type is the Solver. The Solver watches every element of the show like a hawk—every sleight of hand, every wave of the wand—looking for slip-ups and clues about how the trick is done. The Solver delights when she thinks she’s spotted a trick card up the magician’s sleeve or what she believes might be a plant in the audience. 

The second type is the Dreamer. The Dreamer knows there’s no such thing as magic, but the fun is in suspending disbelief and falling into the mystery. For the Dreamer, the show looks a lot like magic, so it is. 

The third type is the Grump. The Grump is a failed Solver who gets angry when the magician fools him and then fools him again and again. He takes the whole thing personally. For Grumps magic shows are no fun.   

So it’s rare when a show comes along that delights all three. But The Enigmatist is most definitely that show. 

Chances are pretty good you’ve never seen anything quite like The Enigmatist. David Kwong, playwright, performer, and crossword puzzle writer for the New York Times–hence the review’s title, clever, eh?–has designed a theatrical experience something like a magic show, but with elements of stage play, chemistry class, and intricate puzzle, all on a set that looks like a library escape room. 

Kwong is smart and witty. The show clips along with an IQ established right from the get-go when he brings the periodic table into the fray. After making a few jokes about atomic symbols, including a humdinger about potassium (K), Kwong correctly identifies a series of elements on cards randomly selected by audience members. 

Let’s pause on this for a moment because almost nothing about this should be interesting or funny. It’s a card trick we’ve seen before presented in the form of a science class most of us barely remember. But this is Kwong’s magic. There’s a little part in all of us that gets into stuff like this. Who doesn’t love a good mystery?

That’s how the show’s put together: a big interwoven mystery. Before entering the theater, audience members solve four puzzles and have their mystery cards punched. When the show begins, card tricks and dollar bills inside kiwis (yes, kiwis) build into stories about the search for understanding. Scrabble references beget secret codes and clues, which lead to stories about ciphers and love-struck cryptographers, all in the form of a brilliant puzzle, a crossword puzzle created in the moment by Kwong. 

Here’s the thing. David Kwong’s best trick is that he’s able to welcome and then envelop the audience in the mystery. He brings us into the puzzle and makes us feel like we’re part of it. Solvers love the show because Kwong is giving them all kinds of puzzles they can solve along the way. Dreamers love the show because there’s so much that defies explanation, and the whole thing fits together like magic. Grumps love the show because they get to enjoy a performer with a rare talent for doing the inexplicable while making them feel like they are in on it with Kong.

So… thirteen letters across for a mind-blowing show at Chicago Shakespeare: The Engimatist
The Enigmatist is now playing at Chicago Shakespeare, Theater 800 East Grand Avenue,  through June 30. Performance times vary; check the website at chicagoshakes.com. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.

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