ROGERS PARK – This time of year is ideal for exploring the unexplainable. Whether you gather up ghost stories, love a good séance or lunge for a Ouija board, there are all kinds of mysterious elements that appear to float over the divide between the living and the dead, especially during Halloween week.
Both of the illusionists currently featured at the Rhapsody Theater at 1328 W. Morse Ave. in Rogers Park, incorporate the supernatural into their stage shows. The Physician Magician, a.k.a theater owner Ricardo Rosenkranz, has a sentient and apparently psychic skull (named “Balsamo”) as a sidekick. The Zabrecky Hour, starring an L.A. magician whose Rhapsody series wraps up on Tuesday, features messages from his dead grandfather, whose ashes are in an urn he utilizes onstage.
Make no mistake, though: Rhapsody Theater attendees are much more likely to be astonished and charmed than terrified. Rosenkranz brings his benevolent bedside manner to his stage, able to pick which card a woman selected from a full deck after having her describe her favorite room in her home. And Zabrecky sports a dry sense of humor in his entertaining show, causing one attendee to comment, “It’s like if Stephen Wright had a magic show.” Both magicians incorporate audience members into their various illusions, adding to the communal feel of their shows.
For the Physician Magician, magic is more about the connection than the mystique. “Magic is the creation of an illusion that brings energy and delight,” he told Block Club Chicago. “It’s not about fooling people. It’s not about tricking people. It’s about creating a certain type of positive wonder.”
One successful career, especially as an acclaimed neonatalist who works with premature babies and newborns, would probably be enough for most people. But not for Rosencranz, who, in an apparent theme for later-in-life magicians, conquered one trick he purchased at a magic shop and was hooked. He eventually developed a stage show at the Royal George in addition to his medical career, while also serving on the boards of cultural institutions like the Lyric Opera and the Harris Theater.
But Rosenkranz had a more intimate space in mind when he thought about building his own theater.
“I was very attracted to the idea of activating a space that is also in the neighborhoods. … I’m a very mission-driven person,” he said. “So this wasn’t just about buying or renting some warehouse on Randolph and having fun with it. This is all about, you know what? The neighborhoods need arts.”
You can see the affection for Rosenkranz’s adopted trade in the revamped Rogers Park theater. It opens with a large, bright wood-paneled bar, then segues into a darker space that features vintage magic show posters and other memorabilia. The 200-seat theater offers an intimate arena reminiscent of a 1950s nightclub, complete with floor seating, curved booths, themed cocktails and snack-type food offerings like pimento cheese and a warmed cookie plate. The inviting space welcomes myriad types of audience members, from a dad with two teen daughters (the shows would be ideal for any kids middle-school age and up) to a group of cocktailing twentysomethings, all enjoying a cozy magic show on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
“It’s very comfortable,” Zabrecky enthused about the space. “It kind of feels old timey, but there’s a nice warmth to it. And Ricardo just added a bunch of magic posters and ephemera,” including Zabrecky’s own poster, drawn by artist Wilhelm Staehle.
Zabrecky also had a prominent pre-magic career: as the frontman of ‘90s alternative band Possum Dixon (unsurprisingly, his show also boasts an excellent playlist). Then he also became hooked on his first magic trick. Since then he’s been a two-time Stage Magician of The Year award winner, and has appeared in several movies and TV shows, both reality and fiction, often playing a magician.
He believes magic appears to be having a moment, especially compared to the bombastic showstoppers from previous decades that many people may associate with famous magicians like David Copperfield and Siegfried and Roy. “There was a big stage of this big disconnect between the audience, and the performer was this deified sort of godlike person, right? It was like an overblown over-budget action film. I know that there’s massive audiences for that, but it just didn’t speak me personally.”
Zabrecky credits illusionists like street magician David Blaine and actor Neil Patrick Harris, a magic enthusiast, with helping to promote the more personal shows that places like the Rhapsody now feature. “I think that what we see on stage, a lot of the work now is smaller. We don’t see the big props; it’s more personalized. There are enough people doing it now that are interesting, and that are storytellers. So that’s going to change the playing field to bring it kind of back to the stage, but on a different level than that grand illusion.
“So it’s an exciting time to be doing the show,” the magician said. “It’s always just a joy to perform. I’m having more fun up there – I bet you’d never guess it – then probably most audience members.”
Rosenkranz agrees about the boon in magic performers, which bodes well for the Rhapsody’s upcoming schedule. “While other theaters like Lookingglass are laying off people and shutting down, I’m hiring. We’re doing 10 shows this year. I have two great magicians coming from London. One is doing a close-up show that he’s never done anywhere else; Andi Gladwin is his name. … I have two of the best female magicians in the world. One lives in Chicago [Kayla Drescher]; she’s doing a show in January brand-new. And I have French magician Alexandra Duvivier coming in February, who has never performed in the U.S. in this capacity and is creating a show specifically for here. So that’s what’s exciting to me.”
The Physician Magician’s shows are ongoing at the Rhapsody Theater. Zabrecky wraps up his residency at the theater on Tuesday, but appears every night until then, with an additional matinee on Saturday. Andi Gladwin’s residency starts on Nov. 9. Tickets start at $35 and are available online.
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: