‘The Enigmatist’ review: Chicago Shakespeare show solves the puzzle of finding something fun to do

Do you know someone who can whiz through the New York Times’ crossword puzzle in the amount of time it takes a normal person (e.g., me) to do a mildly challenging Mini version?

Perhaps someone who rapidly forms unpronounceable obscurities from Scrabble tiles, and can tell you the game value of any word with zero time to calculate?

David Kwong, whose engrossing one-person show “The Enigmatist” is currently playing in the Upstairs Theater at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, is such a person. A self-proclaimed nerd to the nerdiest degree, he doesn’t just complete those crossword puzzles; he creates them. He’ll show you how.

He’s also a magician and historian in addition to a puzzle master. In fact, he studied the history of magic at Harvard. The rare books section of the New York Public Library, he informs us, is his happy place.

One can easily imagine him teaching at Hogwarts, although he also gladly, transparently, informs us at the start that there’s no real magic in magic.

These three obsessions — puzzles, magic, history — weave together in “The Enigmatist” to create a show that works extremely well because of its intricate — and carefully concealed — construction, and, even more importantly, because it feels throughout so thoroughly authentic to who he is.

You don’t need to be a puzzle or magic lover to enjoy this show, although if you are one, go. Kwong structures the evening around telling us a story, so it doesn’t feel, as many magic acts do, like the performer just moves from one trick to another.

In a show where everything fits together, Kwong’s story involves the origins of professional cryptography in America, which — he could make more of this! — turns out to be local. I’m surprised I didn’t know more about the eccentric millionaire from Chicago who built a lab on an estate in west suburban Geneva, determined, among other things, to prove that 17th century philospher/statesman Francis Bacon encoded in Shakespeare’s plays his secret authorship of the works. And how two essential code-breaking pioneers-to-be met there and married.

“Nerd love,” Kwong calls it, with an expression of glee.

So, yes, there’s a bit of a Shakespeare connection, but not much. The real reason this show has been programmed at Chicago Shakes is that the still-new leadership at the theater — artistic director Edward Hall and executive director Kimberly Motes — have decided, probably correctly, that light entertainment provides the right match of Navy Pier and summer. As Jason Alexander performs in the sit-commish “Judgment Day” in the downstairs theater — an extended hit — Kwong’s engaging, family-friendly show blends deep intelligence and an infectious love of language with some traditional magic tricks, such as card play, a climactic magic box and mentalism.

The show is brainy — an ode to intellectual obsession — and yet completely accessible. If I had a 10-year-old to bring, I would. I’d even sit them up front. I enjoyed watching such kids’ looks of wonder, shooting quick, jaw-dropped glances at an accompanying parent. And — extra summer benefit! — they likely got an early introduction to the periodic table of elements, a factorial function, and binary code. Kwong loves math as much as language, two phenomena that bring order to apparent chaos.

The theater recommends arriving a half hour before showtime to solve some puzzles before entering. It’s a great idea, priming the audience for a way of thinking, for mental effort as fun. It’s also practice for some puzzles he’ll provide during the show, and makes you appreciate the bookshelf ornamentation in Brett J. Banakis’s elegant production design.

In the end, Kwong shows us that he understands how much pleasure there can be in putting disparate pieces together, finding patterns and discovering surprises. And that this pleasure sits at the heart of puzzles, magic, history and storytelling.

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