It’s 1893 all over again in “Sean Masterson’s Timeless Magic” | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

It’s 1893 all over again in “Sean Masterson’s Timeless Magic” 

The acts are up close and personal, but the magic feels real at the Chicago Magic Lounge.

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Courtesy the artist

You've heard of going through the looking glass? The Chicago Magic Lounge takes you through the laundromat. That's where you're headed if you seek the wonders of prestidigitation in store behind the bank of washer-dryers stacked floor to ceiling in the Uptown venue. As cover-ups go, it's not quite as convincing as the industrial dry-cleaning machinery fronting the meth lab in Breaking Bad. But it's a good introduction to the surprises in store.

The Magic Lounge launched in 2018 as a multistage temple to the old-school charmers of the pre-David Copperfield world, conjurers such as Matt Schulien, who helped make Chicago a hotbed of up-close magic. In Magic Lounge lore, Schulien led the charge to take magic "from the stage to the spectator's table."

That's certainly the aesthetic at the Magic Lounge, where customers are asked to question reality before they lay eyes on so much as a card trick: some of those washer-dryer units are not like the others. Find the secret door among them, and you'll soon be in a surprisingly spacious 34-guest-capacity bar steeped in art deco elegance, where bartenders serve craft cocktails with names such as "How Houdini Died" and "Smoke and Mirrors." Beyond the bar, there's a library where packs of cards float in midair and ancient, priceless tomes on the history and practice of magic sit like sacred idols in lighted glass cases.

And beyond those cases, "Sean Masterson's Timeless Magic" headlines the lounge's 120-seat Harry Blackstone Cabaret through October 2. (Additional acts play the 43-seat 654 Club.) Masterson's show is rooted in local history—specifically, the 1893 Columbian Exposition, aka the Chicago World's Fair. Masterson's narrative through line involves a mysterious coin and his attempt to find its origin. The search is a gentle, mostly fascinating crash course in late-19th-century magicians, especially those known to have worked the 1893 fair.

Masterson's illusions are more intriguing than eye-popping. Scarves fly and float like tiny birds; playing cards, silver coins, and little round balls vanish and materialize via what seem like telekinesis and telepathy; a ghost puppet tells hilariously awful jokes. Masterson is a genial host, accompanying his sleight of hand with tales of Houdini and Blackstone, Howard Thurston, and "Chung Ling Soo"—the last a white man who donned "yellowface" in order to beguile audiences with stereotypical exoticism.

Masterson isn't the only magician at work in the lounge. Before he takes the stage, an in-house company of ten wandering conjurers works the tables. While overwhelmingly male—there's one woman among them— the company of magicians seems to be consciously avoiding the most hackneyed cliches of magic's historically macho world: no scantily clad female assistants are sawed in half, levitated, or disappeared.

It's all about the eye contact in the lounge. It's a place where the artists make you believe (or at least want to believe) in magic. Come skeptical, and you'll leave at least considering the possibility of the impossible.   v

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