Thursday, August 04, 2016

Magic in the Night: House Theatre's 'Death and Harry Houdini' Pulls Off Some Nifty Tricks -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Death and Harry Houdini
featuring magic by Dennis Watkins
written & directed by Nathan Allen
House Theatre of Chicago
at Chopin Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 21

90 years since the death of the man born Ehrich Weisz, the name Houdini remains eminently synonymous with magic and escape artistry, perhaps even more singularly than Shakespeare connotes playwriting, Mozart classical music, Caruso opera singing, Picasso painting or Hemingway fiction.

And yet beyond having seen a TV movie on Harry Houdini in my youth and once visiting an exhibit on him in Appleton, WI--the town in which the Budapest-born Weisz grew up--I can't say that in recent years I've noticed a whole lot of material focusing on his biography or his trickery.

I can't even recall having heard of Death and Harry Houdini, a magic-infused theatrical production by the House Theatre of Chicago, until I read Chris Jones' 4-star (out of 4) review of it in the Chicago Tribune this past May--despite the House having first staged it in 2001 and reprised it multiple times, including as recently as 2013.

So in having attended on Wednesday night nearing the end of the current run, I was impressed by how the show featuring gifted magician Dennis Watkins recreating some of Houdini's famous tricks--including the Water Torture Cell--also offered considerable exposition on Harry Houdini's life.

This wound up making for two hours of worthwhile theater--which, in being largely a chronological, biographical affair was informative more so than blazingly dramatic--with several moments of incredible magic.

Having in adulthood only seen comedic magicians Penn & Teller, and the all-star magician touring show The Illusionists: Witness the Impossible, but never David Copperfield or Vegas headliners like Lance Burton or Criss Angel, I can't make direct comparisons about the quality or volume of the magic, nor the overall entertainment value.

And while I was genuinely both impressed and entertained, as well as truly dazzled by the magic Watkins performed, I can't say that I loved Death and Harry Houdini on the level of a truly brilliant play or wonderful musical or great concert.

But especially as something different, incorporating the idiom of magic that I enjoy but don't often witness, complemented by a good overview of a legendary artist, I found the show to be far better than not, and well worth my time.

In front of a typically full house for this work at the Chopin Theatre--including on Wednesday night the great Chicago newsman and documentarian Bill Kurtis--Death and Harry Houdini begins with a ringmaster (played by Johnny Arena) briefly cribbing the emcee from Cabaret in welcoming the audience, before Watkins takes the stage.

Hanging upside down and bound.

With a total cast of 8, the backstory of Houdini broaches on his father's death from cancer, his closeness with his mother (Marika Mashburn) and brother Theo (Tommy Rapley), meeting his wife Bess (Kara Davidson)--the latter two featured prominently in the magician's career--crossing paths with an early mentor, Dr. Lin, and promoter Martin Beck, and his transition from doing cup-&-ball and card tricks to walking on glass to elaborate escapes from ropes, chains and padlocked water chambers.

Though not a musical--a Houdini Broadway project starring Hugh Jackman seems to have stalled--Death and Harry Houdini features a good bit of music performed by the actors, a strong background soundscape and even some singing & dancing from the delightful Davidson.

And while a spoken refrain positing that "Death isn't the end of life, it's the absence of life" is oft repeated throughout the show, and Houdini's own death from a ruptured appendix factors in--though not nearly as prominently as I was expecting--the show is a rather lively affair (well-suited for older kids), especially with Watkins being a rather amiable performer.

If you don't like magic, this probably isn't the theater show for you to see, and if you don't like theater, this probably isn't the magic show for you to see.

But if you like both, as I do, Death and Harry Houdini--while perhaps not the most mind-blowing showcase of either genre--neatly executes the trick of merging the two.

While providing a good bit of escape.

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