An Evening of Magic with Rob Zabrecky

Tall, slender with short dark hair and dark eyes that stare, Rob Zabrecky enters in a black suit and matching bow tie, as easily taken for an undertaker as a magician. He clutches a scuffed and stained old box bound shut with string and tape. He warily walks down stage to confront his audience. Pacing the front row, he scrutinizes us one by one, peering into our eyes, challenging each of us to meet his gaze. He then climbs the central aisle until he finds someone hiding three tiers back, some innocent victim he’s chosen for his own inscrutable reasons. “You,” he instructs sternly, “hold this,” handing over the box, but before turning back to the stage to begin his performance, he admonishes, “It’s not yours. You’re just holding it.”

The mystery of the show — presented this week by Magic Chicago ( — has already begun. More compelling than the enigma of what’s in the box is the strangeness of Zabrecky himself. This mystery remains through each episode of his act, tricks with scissors and paper, escapes, fortune-telling, mass hypnosis, a seance, a quiz show, mind-reading, and finally a zany soft-shoe dance accompanying a weirdly wondrous card trick. What keeps us riveted is not the dexterity of his sleight of hand or the cleverness of his illusions, but what’s behind his piercing eyes, his melancholy expressions, his aloof posturing. This persona, an odd mix of nerdy vulnerability along with the resentful viciousness of the long-bullied oddball (not to mention the menace of a barely repressed psycho-killer), keeps us mesmerized. He remains throughout creepily (and hilariously) fascinating.

Zabrecky has been compared to Norman Bates from Hitchcock’s “Psycho.” Indeed he puts me in mind of that classic horror film’s most remarkable moment. I’m not talking about the famous scene when Janet Leigh is murdered in the shower. That unforgettable moment, so suspenseful and steamy (behind the shower curtain with a Hollywood bombshell!), cinematically dazzling (how many cuts of the film?), shockingly violent (how many cuts of the knife?), so dramatically outrageous (the advertised star of the film has been killed off a mere thirty minutes in!) is justly celebrated as a tour de force. But what comes afterward may be even more astonishing. Hitchcock focuses on the dilemma of what awkward and odd Norman Bates is going to do with the dead body. Hitchcock involves us in this practical problem and makes it into an occasion for suspense. We ask ourselves throughout the excruciatingly slow and suspenseful ordeal, will young Norman get caught? Surprisingly, we find ourselves feeling that we don’t want him to get caught! We want him to succeed in hiding the body. Hitchcock shows how much we, his audience, naturally identify with the guilty. We discover our own dark side when we find ourselves rooting for Norman.

Rob Zabrecky, like Alfred Hitchcock, masterfully manipulates his audience. Yes, tall, dark, and discomforting Zabrecky physically resemblances Anthony Perkins’s iconic “psycho,” but this magician most resembles Bates because, while he is odd, awkward, maybe crazy and sometimes scary, at the same time, he seems in all his strangeness sympathetic: we cannot help but root for Zabrecky. The proof in the screening room of “Psycho” were the screams. At “An Evening of Magic with Rob Zabrecky” proof are the tears of laughter along with gasps of wonder at his clever magic and, at last, applause when all tension breaks in the surprise reveal of an elegant illusion. Beyond magic and mentalism, beyond wonder and terror, the mood Zabrecky conjures for his audience — a sweetly unsettling rapport — is what makes an evening with him unforgettable. When he grabs his box at show’s end, chased from the room by applause, are hearts are with him. Whatever demons haunt him, we want him to get away.

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