Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Enigmatist
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
By Karen Topham

David Kwong
Photo by Jeff Lorch
There are three kinds of people who go to magic shows.

The first type of person 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 sees a trick card up the magician's sleeve or what she thinks might be a plant in the audience.

The second type of person 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 of person is the Grump. The Grump is a failed Solver who feels dumb and gets angry that the magician has tried and will continue to try to fool him. He takes the whole thing personally. For Grumps, magic shows are no fun.

So it's rare when a show comes along that will delight 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 that falls somewhere close to a magic show, but with elements of stage play, chemistry class, and puzzle, all on a set that looks a little like a library escape room.

Kwong is smart and witty. The show clips along at a brisk pace and with an IQ established right from the get-go when Kwong brings the periodic table into the fray. After making a few jokes about atomic symbols, including a humdinger about potassium (K), Kwong correctly guesses 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 class most of us barely remember. But this is Kwong's magic. There's a little part in all of us that loves stuff like this. Who doesn't love a good mystery?

That's how the show is put together: a big interwoven mystery. Before entering the theater, audience members solve four puzzles and have their mystery cards punched. Then, 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 by Kwong in the moment.

Here's the thing. David Kwong's best trick is that none of this makes you feel dumb. 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 to 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 understand.

So ... thirteen letters across for a mind-blowing show at Chicago Shakespeare: The Enigmatist,

The Enigmatist runs through June 30, 2024, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater ,800 East Grand Avenue, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit