Chicago Theater Review: THE MAGIC PARLOUR (The House Theatre at The Palmer House Hilton Hotel)

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by Lawrence Bommer on October 2, 2016

in Theater-Chicago


Is stuff magical only because it can’t be explained? Perhaps it’s more than just the absence of logic, probability, or reason. There’s a presence too: Magic evokes a child-like sense of wonder in the oldest adults, rewarding their imagination more than their ignorance. At least that’s the working philosophy of House Theatre’s master magician Dennis Watkins, a third-generation practitioner. His awesome 90-minute solo show The Magic Parlour has graced Chicago’s Palmer House for the last six years. Sparking amazement beyond any “smoke and mirrors” trickery, this tour-d’illusion, comprising mentalism and sleight of hand, is a labor of love passed on from a prestidigitating past. It’s also an intimate showcase for one trickster’s glorious deceptions.


It all goes back to Watkins’ grandfather. This wizard manipulator of playing cards taught Dennis that the best magic is up close and personal, played to a room of no more than 40 folks–just like this one-act. He argued: “If you put someone inside of a box and cut them in half, people rarely believe that it is magic. But, if you can tear up their dollar bill and restore it right under their nose, or look into their mind and read their thoughts, or create any number of miracles inches in front of their eye, that is an experience they will never forget.”


Maybe miracles is too loaded a term for misdirection (Watkins also calls it “unearthly feats of physical skill”). But grandpa got the intimacy argument permanently right. And, fittingly, grandson pulls off his feats in a brightly lit room, his every act open for inspection, however impossible to explain away. A skilled card counter (he could ravage a Vegas casino) and reader of spectators’ “tells” and “reveals,” Watkins argues that it’s the audience who are the true magicians—by believing in the first (and last) place and also by projecting their thoughts so he can “read” them out loud. (No fooling: He asks them to project the very words over his head so he can get them.)

As he’s repeatedly shown in House Theatre’s Death & Harry Houdini, Watkins can do the dramatic, outsized stuff pioneered by that great escape artist, like Houdini’s death-defying “water torture cell.” But here Watkins prefers to be Penn and Teller rather than David Copperfield. He prefers to produce elaborate and escalatingly exciting variations on a simple trick—moving objects from one place to another without being detected.


Whether in a “magic envelope,” the sleeves of his suit, or to the bottom of his shoe, Watkins can transport cards signed by audience members into his own mystic ozone, making them later reappear in places they should never have visited. In the most exhilarating stunt of all, Watkins climbs into a huge inflated red balloon and, when a little boy pops it, exhibits items that had clearly come from the outside in. Earlier a page goes missing from a book, the very one that an audience member had read in plain sight.

Going for the gold, Watkins combines broken pieces of thread into a continuous line, swallows multiple razor blades (no sewing needles for him!) and pulls from his mouth a string of linked ones. Dealing deftly from a fully shuffled pack, he tells the tale of Joe the bartender, doling out the right cards to fit his facts. He also employs, of course, a literal magic marker. And, pace Harry Potter, no wand is needed, just hands quicker than our eyes and especially our minds.


Watkins’s other forte is extra sensory perception, the power to display a mind-boggling “pre-cognition” of audience members’ hidden information. (Happily, there’s no hypnotism.) He can reveal guests’ pre-chosen numbers (from a die or deck) and words, including the names of people he’s never met. And he doesn’t always require visual cues for his mind-reading: At one point, audience members blind him with duct tape concealing pennies over his eyes, then a black hood on top of the tape. He still manages to successfully guess items provided by the crowd.

As if to convince any remaining skeptics that there are no coincidences, Watkins’s encore consists of a Lotto ticket whose every number corresponds with numerical choices that audience members (no plants here) had chosen throughout the performance. (It could only have happened in the real time of the actual performance but how, when and where?)


This final dazzler is both a summation of Watkins’s marvels and the final proof of his professional perfection. I could neither begin to explain the slightest of his sleight of hand, let alone the secrets of his telekinesis, teleportation, and omniscience. Nor would I want to: Ignorance is bliss when magic is literally at hand.

Also worth savoring: The Magic Parlour provides a dinner-theater package at the gourmet-great Lockwood Restaurant in the Palmer House lobby. They pull off culinary tricks to rival Watkins’s wonders—and there are no razor blades in the salmon!


photos by Ryan Borque

The Magic Parlour
The House Theatre of Chicago
The Palmer House Hilton Hotel, 17 E Monroe
Fri at 7:30 & 9:30; Sat at 4:30, 7:30 & 9:30 (check schedule)
open run
for tickets, call 773-769-3832 or visit The Magic Parlour

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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