Keeping Magic Relevant in the 21st Century

Keeping Magic Relevant in the 21st Century

Photo: Magician Jonathan Levit performed at MAGIC CHICAGO May 4, 2016.

Review: MAGIC CHICAGO at Stage 773

By Jason Epperson

Magic is perhaps on a bit of an upswing, but it’s not appreciated as it was throughout the 20th century. Likely, it has something to do with our connected lifestyles—in which Eddie Van Halen’s speed-picking technique, the Coca-Cola recipe, and how David Copperfield vanished the Statue of Liberty are no longer secrets. Wonder and amazement through secrecy, surprise, and trickery are difficult to pull off these days. We may not know how a magic trick works, but we comprehend enough about how magicians dupe us not to be surprised by another version of sawing a lady in half or the cups and balls.

This new-found consciousness is inevitably forcing magicians to change their approach to performance. Today, we care a lot less that the magician picked the right card – we care how they did it. The best are no longer the illusionists who invent gags; they are the prestidigitators that tell a great story. The ones who are a bit different from everyone else. The ones that have flawless technique. In all types of performance, today more than ever, you have to be a master of skill and bring something new to the table. There is simply too much entertainment out there to take our focus when a performer fails to move their artform forward. This all has opened up a real opportunity for superb close-up magicians to take the spotlight. Close-up magic is all about technique and story. You can’t hide behind stagecraft and leggy assistants, and you need to keep your spectators focused and involved with real storytelling. Mentalists, too, are seeing a window of enlightenment. Many have crafted a following on YouTube and the like. There’s one remarkably weak “mind-reader” you may have seen, who’s videos have tens of millions of views on Facebook (this guy who thinks I’m too dumb to understand subtraction).

In the Chicago tradition of big shoulder boasting, it’s often said that close-up magic was invented here. Sometimes the sort of at-your-table magic acts are even described as “Chicago-style.” While such promulgations are rather erroneous, Chicago was for many years a haven for magic. We do own a history steeped in the traditions of close-up and have contributed thoroughly to the art. Today, you can still find a lot of acts in Chicago’s bars, restaurants, hotels, and theaters. Many of them perform on off-nights when a theater doesn’t have a mainstage show playing, or when a restaurant is trying to bring in a regular crowd. One such show that performs the first Wednesday of each month is MAGIC CHICAGO at Stage 773. Produced and hosted by Robert Charles and Benjamin Barnes, this rotating showcase is in its 10th year. It’s somewhat uncommon in the city in that every show has a new line-up of magicians—many of them traveling performers.

I caught the May edition of MAGIC CHICAGO in the cabaret space at Stage 773, which, despite being quite wide and crammed too full of chairs and tables, is an ideal space for this type of experience. After a brief intro by our hosts, the evening kicked off with the mentalist act “Two Brothers One Mind.” Jeff Orr “telepathically” communicates to blindfolded brother Chad shapes that audience members have drawn on whiteboards, what they are wearing, and serial numbers off of currency. There were a few jokes you’ve heard before (does anyone have a $100 bill? How about a $50? A $20…you may get it back…), and the routine isn’t entirely polished, but it’s a solid one-note act to warm up the crowd.

The brothers were followed by headliner Jonathan Levit, who also has a relatively constant career as a TV actor. Levit’s acting chops show, as he is a gifted storyteller. I don’t mean that he makes up some phony story to go along with a trick, I mean that he takes us on a journey through the routine and has us on the edge of our seat with anticipation. We know he’ll pick the right card, but he fools us about 5 or 6 times along the way as to how he will pick it and where it will show up. Again, here was a bit of rote magic act stuff that was a turn off (particularly the old flirt with the attractive women in the audience bit), but Levit is a solid performer that is well worth seeing. His memorization act, utilizing last week’s TIME Magazine, was just astonishing.

Levit then introduced the singularly named “Suzanne”, who performed a few pieces before Levit came back on to close the show. Suzanne pulled an exceptional card force routine using blank cards that was by far her best—but regrettably followed it up with a few weaker illusions. She performed a standard cups and balls routine set to a parable, and closed with a simple trick where she put a marked band-aid on a gentleman’s hand and swapped it with one marked on her forehead—all while trying to relate it to a mothers love for her children. I started this review talking about how storytelling has become a requisite for magicians, and here is an example of one who is trying to do just that, but not in an honest and refreshing way. It just doesn’t work. We know the scoop. We’ve heard it before.

The whole evening could be more refined. I’d love to see the hosts maybe host a bit—work the crowd and make the night feel cohesive. The night didn’t quite rank up there with David Parr and Joe Diamond’s excellent Magic Cabaret or Dennis Watkins’ classy Magic Parlour at the Palmer House—but with the right acts, it has the potential to compliment those shows admirably. For the magic aficionado, MAGIC CHICAGO is a suitable place to catch a magician or two you haven’t seen before.



About author

Jason Epperson

Jason is a producer, manager, and designer with 17 years of experience in Chicago, New York, and in the touring market. In 2015, he founded Lotus Theatricals - the publisher of Performink, and an independent commercial producing company - with Abigail Trabue.