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THEATER REVIEW Palace of the Occult
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2015-12-01

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Playwright: Neil Tobin. At: Eclectic Full Contact Theatre at Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston Ave. Tickets: 800-838-3006; www.palaceoftheoccult.com; $25-$35. Runs through: Dec. 20

It is widely accepted that Hitler was a disciple of certain esoteric practices—astrology, numerology, spiritualism et al.—but scholars have been curiously silent on the contribution of Weimar Republic superstar Erik Jan Hanussen in introducing the Third Reich's mass murderer to the world of paranormal science. After all, how would the histories—and the victors who author them—explain Adolf's high-profile friendship with a Moravian Jew?

The clairvoyant/charlatan, born Herschmann Chaim Steinschneider, acquired his Danish name during his youthful career with the circus, where he discovered his talent for charismatic deception. As his reputation grew—assisted by lavish self-promotion—over the years immediately following World War I, so did his fortune. The economic depression of 1931 expanded his clientele of desperate souls seeking comfort in cult religions, rendering him a celebrity of rock-star proportions. The young rebels of the Nationalist Socialist Party, in particular, welcomed the attention of the wealthy Berlin luminary who lent them money, invited them to sumptuous parties attended by glamorous movie stars and even coached their leader in public speaking.

Neil Tobin sets his play on the opening of Hanussen's "Palace of the Occult"—a private club and "laboratory" incorporating artifacts from his travels among sorcerers, shamans and mystics. After welcoming us, our host regales us with tales of his adventures, accompanied by re-enactments of his famous stage illusions—the latter assisted by his "guests" in the audience who are rewarded with champagne for their service. The second act reproduces the seance held on that fatal night, when Hanussen's trance led him to proclaim the torching of the government Reichstag, the Nazi rise to power in the subsequent hysteria and the suffering it would inflict upon others—prophesy sufficiently discomforting to his swastika-wearing homeys to guarantee his mob-style execution.

Such classic legerdemain as the "Telepathic Mail" and the "Hypnotic Strongwoman" stunts, along with the genuine fakir artistry required to jab long needles through your own flesh, are not skills an actor can be expected to learn in a few weeks of rehearsal. Fortunately, Tobin is, himself, a magician of no small renown, chiefly remembered for his long-running "Supernatural Chicago" show from 2004 through 2014.

For this Eclectic Theatre production, under David Belew's unhurried direction, Tobin inhabits the persona of the seductively charming Hanussen with an oily confidence unimpaired by sparse attendance on a snowy first night. Even when the intimacy of the rented quarters at Prop Thtr threaten to reveal the secret behind the tricks, the fascinating true story related by the trickster is enough to keep us spellbound.


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