Chicago Theatre Review
What Eyes See and Ears Hear
Death and Harry Houdini – House Theatre
Erik Weisz was an Hungarian-born Jewish boy from Appleton, Wisconsin, who eventually evolved into the world famous Harry Houdini. His name became synonymous for mind-boggling magic. Houdini was a vaudeville headliner, an illusionist, an escape artist and, in his later life, became known for his death-defying feats involving straightjackets, handcuffs, chains and underwater escapes. All his life the magician sought to challenge and defeat Death, even promising to return as a spirit following his own demise on October 31, 1926. Even today, almost 100 years later, Houdini’s life and talent remains fascinating and mystifying to young and old alike.
About fifteen years ago, on the 75th anniversary of the magician’s death, the House Theatre presented a more modest version of this play at the Live Bait Theatre. Today this play has grown into a jaw-dropping two-act play about the man, the myth and his magic. The script is the work of talented writer Nathan Allen, who also directs this dazzling production, and his close, magical collaboration with Dennis Watkins, the star of the play. In fact, everyone connected with this production proudly admits that this play wouldn’t have existed without Mr. Watkins’ talent and determination.
Dennis Watkins is a brilliant, third generation professional magician. His passion for his art and his devotion to his craft are boundless. He also performs as himself at the Palmer House in a more intimate, hour-long show called “The Magic Parlor.” As Harry Houdini, Mr. Watkins spins a tale of wizardry and illusion. The play is a biographical mysterious, often humorous drama, told through uncanny, impossible tricks that seem to evoke the supernatural. Watkins is charismatic, kind and caring in his portrayal of this master magician and is simply the best reason for visiting or revisiting this play.
The story introduces us to the magician, his close relationship with his mother, Cecilia, his younger brother, Theodore, and his devoted wife, Bess. All play important roles in Houdini’s life as well as in his career in magic. The story, peppered with oohs, ahhs and spontaneous applause from the audience, delights with feats of mind-reading, coin and card tricks, levitation and escapes from handcuffs, rope and chains, all culminating in the famous Chinese Water Torture Cell. While the story is mesmerizing, it’s Houdini’s/Watkins’ magic that’s simply unbelievable to behold.
In addition to Mr. Watkins, the eight-member ensemble is equally magical. The terrific Shawn Pfautsch is great as Theo, lovely Carolyn Defrin is a beautifully loving Bess, Marika Mashburn creates a humorous, gruff Hungarian mama Cecilia and Johnny Arena becomes a masterful Ringmaster for this circus of magic. Tommy Rapley is, among other characters, a frightening, towering figure as Death, and Julia Merchant and Rashaad Hall deftly play multiple supporting roles as multitasking ensemble members. Allen’s production is well supported by Lee Keenan’s period costumes, Harrison Adams and Kevin O’Donnell’s co-designed sound and original music, Tommy Rapley’s fluid choreography and Collette Pollard’s majestic scenic design, illuminated by Ben Wilhelm’s lighting.
Houdini once said of magic that what the eyes see and the ears hear the mind believes. In this exciting, mind-boggling production, remounted by the always impressive House Theatre of Chicago, the audience’s mind will be expanded and blown away by everything seen and heard, just a few feet away from each spectator. Several audience members are even encouraged to participate in many of the tricks making the experience even more intimate and authentic. Seldom has a biographical drama been more beautiful, breathtaking and sheer fun.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 12-July24 by the House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin Theatre’s Upstairs venue, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 773-769-3832 or by going to www.thehousetheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other fine area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com