The House Theatre of Chicago's Death and Harry Houdini, is playing right now at the Arsht Center in Miami. And that's good, good news for anyone who likes their theatre as original in concept and execution as only The House seems able to produce.
Just in case your Momma never told you, Harry Houdini was the magician and escape artist of the early 20th century and he was forever going on about beating death. “I dedicate my life to the conquest of death.” Yeah, right. He died in 1926. Aged 52.
Death and Harry Houdini was House Theatre's first production, ten years ago. The version on display here has “ a little more wisdom and craft, ” to quote Dennis Watkins, who plays Houdini. (Any more “wisdom and craft” and my eyeballs would have have popped right out of my head.)
The show is set in a far from ordinary circus, there's a ringmaster, a band, Harry's father being cut into three pieces before our very eyes, scenes from Harry's life, his singing, tap dancing wife, his mother, his brother and all sorts of odd and ends, magic tricks and tears, a stage full of wondrously ingenious props, brilliant costumes, funny dances and songs and death defying acts as far as you can throw a straitjacket, chains, and a tank of water. And Harry regurgitates razor blades, his mother channels Queen Victoria, Death, of course, is ten feet tall and breathes through a gas mask, and did I mention the magic, the music, the dances, the acting? No, I didn't mention the acting. Because there's no need to. Everyone just was, and that's all it takes to be perfectly believable.
Eight actors will convince you there's a hundred on stage as they play God Save The Queen on kazoos, ring bells, sing and dance under big black umbrellas as they bury the poor old lady. They also pour broken glass for bare-footed Harry to tread and help stick him upside down in 154 gallons of water.
They can also play the trombone, saxophone, guitar, ukelele, mandolin and drums. I missed the portable grand piano but I'm sure there was one.
So, alphabetically speaking, the entertainers, and I mean that sincerely, were Abu Ansari, Johnny Arena, Carolyn Defrin, Marika Mashburn, Shawn Pfautsch, Trista Smith, Kevin Stangler and Dennis Watkins.
It's happened each time I've watched a House Theatre of Chicago production. I'm smacked right between the eyes by the glorious imagination of it all. Who thinks this stuff up? Well, how about Nathan Allen, company founder who wrote and directed, Dennis Watkins who performs the Magic, Collette Pollard the scenic designer, composer and co-sound designer Kevin O'Donnell, the other sound designer Harrison Adams, the costume designer Lee Keenan, lighting designer Ben Wilhelm and choreographer Tommy Rapley.
I saw House's The Sparrow last year at the Arsht and now I've seen Death and Harry Houdini and I'm really sorry that's all I've seen from The House Theatre of Chicago.
All photos by Michael Brosilow.
Death and Harry Houdini plays through May 20 at the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd, Miami. 305-949-6722 http://www.arshtcenter.org