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Performance review: One-man show ‘The Enigmatist’ delivers engaging puzzles, illusions

(Courtesy of Jeff Lorch)

"The Enigmatist"

Sept. 14 - Nov. 14

Geffen Playhouse

$30-150

By Rio Deniger

Sept. 27, 2021 1:39 p.m.

This post was updated Sept. 29 at 9:30 p.m.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Mind-blowing illusions and puzzles supplement a story of romance and discovery in “The Enigmatist.”

Showing at the Geffen Playhouse until Nov. 14, “The Enigmatist” is a one-man show featuring a combination of magic and cryptology from The New York Times crossword constructor David Kwong. Kwong engages audiences with illusions, card tricks and puzzle solving while aptly tying in a quasi-historical narrative of a 20th-century businessman and an uncrackable code left to him by two cryptologists.

The show begins in the lobby where audience members are encouraged to solve four puzzles before entering the theater. Represented by stations bearing objects and images that appear to be antique, each puzzle asks the audience to find a single word through simple but creative ciphers. With hints available to make the puzzles doable for all audience members, the lobby puzzles provide an amusing pre-show activity while warming up viewers’ minds for the main event.

Inside the theater itself, an array of small tables adorned with red tablecloths and tea lights face a low stage, positioned against a backdrop of dark wooden shelves with books, vases, artists, mannequins and other trinkets. On one side of the room, various framed images in sets of nine stand out against dark wallpaper, while shelves holding plants, dominoes, Rubik’s Cubes and more decorate the other side. The particular positioning of objects around the room provocatively suggests codes and clues similar to the puzzles in the lobby, creating an intimate atmosphere akin to one of a cabaret held in someone’s personal study.

[Related: Q&A: Magician David Kwong talks creation of immersive puzzle show ‘The Enigmatist’]

When the lights dim, Kwong opens the show with a spoon-bending illusion before promptly revealing how the trick works and stating the show does not include real magic. His charismatic, nerdy humor enlivens the introduction as he goes on to tell the audience about his childhood interest in illusions and puzzles with a set of photographs from his youth.

The narrative follows George Fabyan, an eccentric businessman of the 1900s, and two cryptologists he hired, Elizebeth Friedman and William Friedman, who leave Fabyan with an unsolvable code. Although Kwong’s intent to solve the code serves as the foundation of the performance, the narrative fails to resonate in a meaningful way, instead serving merely as a throughline to unite the more entertaining aspects of the performance.

Early in the show, Kwong performs simple card tricks and other basic illusions using skillful shuffling techniques and sleight of hand. The tricks become more advanced as he creatively incorporates his knowledge of science, games and trivia to produce an audience member’s cell phone number and periodic elements out of seemingly random data.

The story is punctuated by illusions, card tricks and feats of intellect performed by Kwong, including arranging a handful of Scrabble pieces into words in under three minutes. Throughout, he calls back to previous tricks and activities in clever ways, proving he is always one step ahead of the audience.

Moreover, Kwong expertly sets up tricks near the beginning to be paid off later in the show, often intertwined with other tricks. For instance, he makes a dollar bill disappear in the first act, cuts open a kiwi to find the dollar in the second and after playing scrabble, adds up his score to reveal the dollar’s serial number in the third. Ever escalating, these multi-layered reveals make the show cohesive while keeping the audience guessing what will be revealed next.

[Related: Comedic play ‘Our Man in Santiago’ combines humor, American history]

Toward the end of the performance, Kwong rapidly creates a crossword puzzle on stage, prompting the audience with The New York Times-style clues as he goes. Afterward, he reveals many of the details from earlier in the evening were hidden in the diagonals and intersections of the puzzle, highlighting Kwong’s quick-thinking skills.

The show also relies heavily on audience participation, including four audience-solved puzzles that pop up throughout the show, the answers of which relate back to the story and drive it forward. By completing the lobby and in-show puzzles, the audience is able to find the combination of the locked chest that sat on the stage throughout the show, revealing a shocking and impressive surprise that ties the show together. The direct engagement through audience participation pulls viewers into the performance for an intimate evening while challenging them to exercise their problem-solving skills.

For those looking to be puzzled, Kwong delivers a night of illusion and enigmatic entertainment.

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Rio Deniger
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