Houdini Defies Death One More Time In Return To The Arsht

Dennis Watkins prepares for another challenge in the House Theatre of Chicago’s Death and Harry Houdini at the Arsht Center / Photo by Justin Namon

(The following is an updated review from 2012  plus a feature story written about this same production’s original visit to the Arsht four years ago. Most of the cast is the same, but several magical effects have been tweaked or added including a full-body levitation of Houdini’s wife, a new second act opening effect, and a slight-of-hand card trick.)

By Michelle F. Solomon

There couldn’t be a more fitting space for The House Theatre of Chicago to bring its production of Death and Harry Houdini  to South Florida than the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center. The biographical play/magic show embraces the most famous magician of all time’s mad-as-a-hatter life. It brings to the front that mysterious element of “carny,” taking audiences on the journey from his early career as a card-trickster in a sideshow to a household name.

Using the Carnival Studio Theater’s black box space to its advantage, seats are placed on two sides, with a long and narrow stage floor made of wood slats, and brushed to look dusty, like a circus floor. Even before the show opens, audiences are immersed in the intimate vintage setting, its circus banners hung on the back walls, with moving scaffolding that’s used throughout the show in each corner.

When the lights go up, it’s welcome to the big top: “Ladies and Gentleman, Boys and Girls” (although this isn’t a show for the kiddies) as The Ringmaster (a perfectly sinister Johnny Arena)  introduces us to the world of Houdini. In playwright Nathan Allen’s original script, death becomes an obsession for Houdini (born Erik Weisz) as we see the pain in the young man’s face as his father suffers, then dies from cancer. Allen’s treatment of the death is pure sideshow, too.

An ensemble actor plays the father whose deathbed is actually a magician’s box. His head, arms, feet and hands are exposed, and, then a dreamlike scene is played out. As he takes his last breath, he  is sawed in half in the box. How’d they do that? Is it appropriate to clap? Oh, but that magic was so good. Applause.

Death appears as an imposing figure that frequents the play throughout. Covered in a gas mask, another actor, draped from head to toe in black, is not recognizable. He’s on stilts and, Darth Vader-like comes out of a back curtain through a midst of fog.

The sensory overload in scenes such as this one, are many in Death and Harry Houdini, but it is so carefully crafted that it’s more entertaining, than overwhelming.

The show, however, belongs to magician Dennis Watkins as Houdini. He’s one of those ultra-talented people who has a gift — a gift for entertaining, for illusion, and for believability, immersing himself in the absolute being of Houdini. So much so that, when the show is over, you’ll find yourself Googling Houdini to learn everything about the legend. (I ran home to the iPad to do just that!)

Watkins plays Houdini with a boyish charm, yet bringing out an eccentric side that borders on insanity. Watkins has a thousand tricks up his sleeve, appearing to audiences first hung upside in a straightjacket, and wiggling his way out of it in seconds flat. The sideshow continues as Allen’s script takes Houdini to study with Dr. Lynn, a Chinese sage who has his own bag of tricks. The staging puts Lynn (his face completely covered by an oversized traditional straw hat), at one end of the stage on scaffolding, where he performs wonderfully engaging magic tricks while the wide-eyed Houdini watches. “I can learn. I can learn fast,” Houdini tells the old man.

But his mentor’s death sets Houdini over the edge (literally) and he begins performing death-defying feats such as jumping off a bridge with his hands and feet shackled. This is played out before the talented ensemble  who come through at every turn, including frequent stints as a marching band.

There’s plenty of magic throughout performed not only by Watkins, but the other players in the ensemble, and it is methodically placed and perfectly timed to give the audience time to breathe from being consumed by elements of Houdini’s story — such as his marriage to Bess, a dancer who gives up her dreams to devote her life to her husband’s career.

Yet the high point of this perfectly wrapped show — the icing on the cake — is Watkins’ re-enactment of Houdini’s most death defying feat, The Chinese Water Torture Cell, in which he hangs upside down, submerged in a chamber filled with water that is locked from the outside.

This scene, as you can imagine takes mental and physical preparation, as Watkins is lowered head first into the narrow tank.

Houdini was a master magician, but the finely crafted work of Death and Harry Houdini is magic in itself. Part drama, part magic show, and all-out entertaining, this is a South Florida, one-of-a-kind event that audiences need to experience before it disappears.

Death and Harry Houdini
plays through May 21 at the Carnival Studio Theater in the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Performances 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. General admission tickets are $50 at arshtcenter.org or call (305) 949-6722.

To see a video of some of the new magic, click here.

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. The House productions are notable for a 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.

To see clips from the Chicago production, click here and here.

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