Theater Review: DEATH AND HARRY HOUDINI (House Theatre of Chicago)

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by Dan Zeff on July 9, 2012

in Theater-Chicago


Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of House Theatre’s Death and Harry Houdini at Chopin TheatreDeath and Harry Houdini was the House Theatre’s first production back in 2001 and it’s been something of a meal ticket for the company over the years. The production played in Chicago earlier this year, transferred to Miami for a successful run, and is now back at the Chopin Theatre, selling out regularly to audiences who love magic shows, which should include just about everyone.

The show is built around Dennis Watkins, a fine actor and even finer magician, who plays the great Houdini and performs many of his tricks, illusions, and escapes at virtually point blank range in the tiny Chopin playing space. There are card tricks, disappearing and reappearing gold fish, a character apparently divided in half in a box, and the fascinating spectacle of Watkins walking barefoot on a bath of broken glass (while the spectators alternately gaze in horrified fascination or look away). Most of the tricks will be familiar to magic show fans, but that doesn’t make the tricks any less entertaining or puzzling.

The climax of the production is the Chinese Water Torture Cell. In this one, Watkins/Houdini is lowered head first into a large glass tank of water; with his feet bound, all access to the tank is sealed by padlocks on the outside. A couple minutes into the immersion, the curtain that covers the tank is pulled back so we can see that the man is actually inside, holding his breath and trying to escape a watery grave. Needless to say, Watkins/Houdini survives, reappearing in a startling manner to great applause and the relief of the audience.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of House Theatre’s Death and Harry Houdini at Chopin TheatreThe show is constructed by playwright/director Nathan Allen as a biography of Houdini from his craving as a young man to become a magician until his death in 1926 at the age of 52. It’s a deliberately ramshackle narrative, some of the storytelling replicating an edgy Bertolt Brecht/Kurt Weill musical from the 1920’s.

The chief figures in the biography are Houdini’s brother Theo (Shawn Pfautsch), who becomes his assistant and the architect of many of his famous escape illusions, and his tap-dancing wife Bess (Carolyn Defrin). On the weird side is Houdini’s mother Cecilia (Marika Mashburn), a difficult and addled woman who receives most of the show’s laughs. A boisterous figure known as the Ringmaster (Johnny Arena), weaves in and out of the show as a kind of master of ceremonies. Trista Smith, Abu Ansari, and Kevin Stangler play multiple roles (as do the principals other than Watkins); like everyone else in the cast, they have a great time all night and their loosey-goosey high spirits contribute nicely to the pleasurable atmosphere of the production. All the supporting players often gather as a raucous band, playing on instruments ranging from the trombone to the mandolin.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of House Theatre’s Death and Harry Houdini at Chopin TheatreThe action occasionally shifts into fantasy with the appearance of a giant stilted figure representing Death. Houdini was obsessed with defeating death his entire life. He also despised fraudulent magicians who scammed their audiences, humiliating one French performer on stage for cheating the audience on a handcuff escape act.

The show doesn’t call for great acting, but Pfautsch delivers a strong three-dimensional performance as Theo as well as an ancient, and irritable, Chinese magician. But everyone in the ensemble does what is asked of him or her as they serve as acolytes for Watkins and his flawless escapes and sleight-of-hand feats.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of House Theatre’s Death and Harry Houdini at Chopin Theatre

By House Theatre standards, the production values are elaborate, with platforms and pulleys, period costumes, film clips, and dramatic lighting effects, along with the equipment required for the more ambitious magic and escape bits. The core designers are Collette Pollard (scenery), Lee Keenan (costumes), Ben Wilhelm (lighting), and Sarah Gilmore (sound). Tommy Rapley choreographed and Kevin O’Donnell composed the original music.

Dan Zeff’s Chicago Review of House Theatre’s Death and Harry Houdini at Chopin Theatre

With all its eye- and ear-catching special effects, the show still rides triumphantly on its intimacy. The audience sits in two sections facing each other. The performers are frequently within touching distance of the actor and a couple of patrons are selected from the audience to verify that the padlocks used in the Water Torture escape are legitimate. Death and Harry Houdini is not a David Copperfield extravaganza, but that can set you back at least $110. In this intimate setting, magic lovers get a very large bang for their buck.

photos by Michael Brosilow

Death and Harry Houdini
The House Theatre of Chicago
Chopin Theatre’s Upstairs Theatre
ends on August 17, 2012
for tickets, call 773.769.3832 or visit House Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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