Conjuring up the best night out in Chicago is a no-brainer now that magician Dennis Watkins has brought “The Magic Parlour,” the show he created for The House Theatre of Chicago, to a paneled private room at the historic Palmer House Hotel. If you’ve brought your troubles with you, Watkins will make them disappear.
Watkins is that rare performer who engages everyone in the audience. It doesn’t matter what type of entertainment you usually prefer or whether you’re part of a couple warring over whether to go to the opera or a Bears game: you will enjoy this show. Age doesn’t matter either. On the night I watched Watkins at play, the audience ranged from age 7 to 70-something and beyond. Watkins kept everyone spellbound — and his subtly risqué jokes flew right over the heads of the youngsters.
Perhaps those kids have an advantage to begin with. “Magic helps people remember what it feels like to be a kid,” says third-generation magician Watkins, quoting his grandfather, Ed Watkins. The spell lingers even after the 75-minute show ends, with audience members buzzing about how Watkins could possibly have managed to pull off any of his increasingly astounding feats — and then deciding it may be better not to know and to simply relax on a cloud of suspended disbelief.
The likable Watkins is a multitalented performer who wowed Chicago audiences in The House Theatre’s production of “Death and Harry Houdini” last year. That role included a death-defying dip into the Water Torture Cell.
What makes Watkins’ prestidigitation all the more impressive is that his close-up magic is presented intimately, with the audience limited to only 32 people — more than justifying the ticket price, which includes wine, beer and soft drinks. Watkins likes to interact and invites audience members to the front of the room, but no matter how close you are — for one trick I was eyeball-to-eyeball with the tuxedoed magician — it is unlikely that you’ll figure out how Watkins fooled you.
Of course, to quote Grandpa Watkins again, the point of magic is not to fool people, but to help them imagine. For Dennis Watkins, that might mean encouraging a volunteer to shuffle an invisible deck of cards.
Watkins mixes exceptional legerdemain with feats of mentalism. Props might include an orange, a roll of toilet paper, razor blades and, in a grand finale, an enormous red balloon, used in a way you probably haven’t seen before.
The Magic Parlour
Palmer House Hilton Hotel, 17 E. Monroe St., Chicago — check in at Potter’s Lounge off the lobby to be escorted to the performance space
Friday, Saturday, Sunday at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm through Dec. 31, 2013; tickets for the 2014 season go on sale in mid-November
Tickets $75 at The Magic Parlour Chicago or (773) 769-3832