By Bill Hirschman
When you first see the actor Dennis Watkins at the Arsht Center this week, he’ll be hanging upside down in a straight jacket.
Moments later, Watkins’ character Erich Weiss will be sitting at the bedside of his dying father when the walls will split and a eight-foot figure of Death will enter to cut the old man in half.
Near the end of the evening, the actor will be locked in a cabinet of water to undertake the genuinely dangerous Water Torture Cell illusion.
The melding of narrative metaphors and stage magic are emblematic of the spectacle infused in the play Death and Harry Houdini, another imagistic work from the House Theatre of Chicago and the Arsht. Last year, Arsht vice president Scott Shiller brought the House production of The Sparrow to Miami, notable for its highly stylized brew of acting, video, music, singing, lighting, sound and imaginative staging.
This play is similarly a sensory experience examining how legendary magician Harry Houdini was obsessed with conquering death, evolving his focus from humble card tricks to massive illusions that directly challenged mortality.
The work was written and is directed by House founder Nathan Allen, but the magic has been woven in as an integral part of the piece by Watkins, who has established a career as a professional magician as well as stage actor.
“Definitely you get some people to come in to see the magic and then you break their hearts” with the drama, said Allen.
While the show features several classic illusions, Allen and Watkins stress how Death and Harry Houdini is theater, not a magic show. “It’s in there as a way of serving the story, not as superfluous spectacle,” Watkins said. “There are a lot of magicians who say they are telling a story, but they feel like to me they are telling little vignettes of story, or a snippet of a character or there’s a motif and theme running through (their act) but it doesn’t carry a story or move the plot forward.”
What the drama does is exemplify the audience-centric aesthetic of the House Theatre. Allen explained, “We want to unite (the audience) in the spirit of community through amazing feats of storytelling. We want the audience… to see each other in the space. It’s all about creating a public catharsis (when) people in the theater are from different backgrounds, sit next to each other and laugh and cry at the same stuff. There’s something holy about that.” For instance, the production is staged with the audience sitting on two sides of the action to ensure spectators are visible to each other.
Allen and Watkins became friends years ago in the same scholarship program at Southern Methodist University. They discovered a shared commitment to making a career in theater, and an interest in magic. Allen showed off to Watkins that he could back palm a card. Watkins, who had been schooled in the art since childhood, palmed an entire deck.
Later, when thinking of starting the House Theatre, Allen mentioned that he had been reading a biography about Houdini while studying differing forms of theatrical storytelling in London, Watkins recalled.
“He became excited about the use of magical vocabulary in theater. He’d say, ‘Dennis, would something like this be possible? Could we do this?’ And it came from a place of story and character that was perfectly suited to the way we wanted to tell the story.”
Watkins remembers the first edition of the play that inaugurated the underground theater “in 2001 was a great experiment. We put everything we could possibly think of in one play. It was fun and it was a great ride for the audience…. But over the years we got more savvy. Since 2003, we produced a slew of plays that were much better.”
Allen added, “When I first started working on that script ten years ago, I was really trying to experiment with what we wanted our company to do on stage and to look like on stage. Now we know more about stronger storytelling choices, how does story structure work. And when we were 22, we didn’t have a lot of experience. But since then we have gone to a few funerals and had a few hits.”
So when the company was considering a show to honor its 10th anniversary, it decided to revisit its first production.
“Almost every scene in the current script has evolved from that show we did ten years ago; I think there are only two consecutive pages that haven’t been touched,” Allen said. “The characters and their basic functions haven’t changed but everything else has from the writing of the dialogue (to) the design and storytelling.”
Watkins agreed, “The play now is a more solid story and the spectacle works in service of that story in a more cohesive way.”
The result has been an even bigger success. The revised version just closed at the House Theatre’s home base to the best box office that the company has ever seen, Allen said. The local reviews were ecstatic. Plans are underway to reopen it in Chicago for another four-week run this summer.
The production is part of the Arsht’s Theater Up Close initiative, a program that co-sponsors and hosts theatrical efforts such as the work of local companies, Zoetic Stage and Mad Cat Theatre Company. Unlike The Sparrow, which the Arsht simply paid for and transplanted, this production of Death and Harry Houdini had direct upfront involvement of Arsht Executive Vice President Scott Shiller, who has been a House champion since living in Chicago.
“We see this as an extension of our mission to support great artists,” Shiller said Tuesday. But his hope is for a much closer partnership in the future with the House Theatre including commissioning a new work that would be mounted in Miami with local actors, who perhaps would return with the show to a Chicago engagement. He seeks cross-pollination among actors, directors, playwrights and designers from both cities working alongside each other. That can only elevate the local arts scene another notch by exposing both groups to each other’s aesthetic, he said.
Allen could not praise Shiller’s efforts enough.
“I really think what Scott is doing here is bold. The relationship that the Arsht has curated here with my company, these things are rare,” Allen said. Besides “bringing a longer lifespan to our work, it brings it to a totally different audience. It creates a healthier ecology for the work and it makes the art better.”
Death and Harry Houdini plays through May 20 at the Carnival Studio Theater in the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Performances 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. General admission tickets are $40-$50 at arshtcenter.org or call (305) 949-6722