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

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by Paul Kubicki on July 8, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

HOUSE THEATRE PULLS
A RABBIT OUT OF ITS HAT

Paul Kubicki's Stage and Cinema review of DEATH AND HARRY HOUDINI at the House Theatre of Chicago - Chopin Theatre - Photo by Michael Brosilow.The House Theatre has, once again, remounted its wildly successful Death and Harry Houdini at the Chopin Theatre – and why not? It’s still as fresh as ever. The death-defying wonders of the world’s most famous escape artist are recreated right before our eyes, and it’s cleverly incorporated into a broader play with music that runs on pure joy and wonder.

Houdini succeeds as an elaborate, highly entertaining showcase for local magician Dennis Watkins, who creates all of the positively mind-bending tricks and stunts for the show. Also playing the eponymous role, Watkins is less actor and more showman, and that’s just fine, considering that Houdini’s tragic flaw seems to have been that very characteristic. Within this structure, however, there’s still high drama. Indeed, the play at times is thrilling enough to elicit audible gasps. This drama is a little too David Copperfield for us to really be affected by the famous escape artist’s story, but hey, who doesn’t love David Copperfield?

Paul Kubicki's Stage and Cinema review of DEATH AND HARRY HOUDINI at the House Theatre of Chicago - Chopin Theatre - Photo by Michael Brosilow.The magician’s major life events (mostly family deaths) are retold using his magic tricks, adding depth to his acts and mythos to his backstory. While the script surrounding these scenes is a bit melodramatic and hackneyed, they are elevated by writer/director Nathan Allen’s rich, enchanting visuals. When Death (Tom Rapley) appears incarnate as a tall, black, cloaked figure with a gas mask for a face, summoning characters to their end, his scenes become nothing short of haunting.

Even though this is a highly recommended affair, the spectacle of the show can’t quite make up for the script’s somewhat asymmetric nature: The second act offers little to no character development, and Houdini’s inevitable death, while just as stimulating as previous scenes, seems sudden and obligatory, and leaves the audience feeling a bit robbed and jolted.

Paul Kubicki's Stage and Cinema review of DEATH AND HARRY HOUDINI at the House Theatre of Chicago - Chopin Theatre - Photo by Michael Brosilow.Still, Houdini seems to up the ante every time it comes back. This time, they’ve added a full-body levitation trick, but the exhilarating Water Torture Cell remains, which has Watkins holding his breath for an unconscionable amount of time, making you think he actually died (even though we know it would hurt the House Theatre’s ticket sales if he did). The production runs smooth and surefooted, and the cast – which, remember, tends to present tricks more than actually portray characters – magically makes it all work (especially Johnny Arena as the absolutely enthralling ringmaster). The ensemble includes Carolyn Defrin (Houdini’s wife, Bess), Shawn Pfautsch (Houdini’s brother, Theo), Marika Mashburn (Houdini’s mother, Cecilia), Abu Ansari and Trista Smith.

Collette Pollard’s industrial-style set evokes from the start a certain dark desperation, setting the perfect tone for magical escapism. Houdini may not be perfect, but it’s so grandiose, frightful, and fun that it levitates right over its own minor pitfalls.

Paul Kubicki's Stage and Cinema review of DEATH AND HARRY HOUDINI at the House Theatre of Chicago - Chopin Theatre - Photo by Michael Brosilow.photos by Michael Brosilow

Death and Harry Houdini
The House Theatre of Chicago
Chopin Theatre’s Upstairs Theatre
scheduled to end on August 18, 2013
for tickets, call 773.769.3832
or visit House Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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