Of all Harry Houdini's feats of daring, none thrilled audiences as much as the Chinese Water Torture Cell, a transparent, fish tank-like device filled with gallons of water into which the favorite son of Appleton, Wisc., would be lowered, head first. The cover would be padlocked after the great escapologist held his breath and, with manacles around his feet, took what seemed to be a fatal dive.
Even several minutes into the trick, audiences would be able to steal a view of the submerged Houdini, still under water and beginning to turn blue. The House Theatre's riveting "Death and Harry Houdini," which was a hit earlier this year and is back in a summer extension at the Chopin Theatre, includes a detailed re-creation of that very trick, performed by actor and magician Dennis Watkins.
To say that the audience is attentive to the events taking places just a few feet in front of them is an understatement. The writer-director Nathan Allen stages the show with the audience on two sides, offering each side a simultaneous view of fellow audience members with eyes averted, brows covered with hands, and faces filled with varying stages of amazement and discomfort. It's the same scene when Watkins talks a walk on broken glass.
On Sunday, I'm happy to report, both drowning and blood were averted, according to plan. In the punishing, real-life end, of course, Houdini was not so lucky, eventually falling prey, like Cyrano de Bergerac, to a cowardly blow. And this is certainly a show very much in touch with the spirit of the real Houdini.
In essence, the show offers a fast-moving biography of Houdini, using his most famous illusions to tell his life story and illustrate his obsession with the cheating of death. But the House Theatre of today is a very different beast from the House Theatre of 2001, when it first created this show. What was once a scrappy and original piece of theater is now a highly polished and visually thrilling show that wouldn't be out of place in Las Vegas, and that contains magic of the very highest order. I'm not talking of actors playing around in arty fashion: Watkins is the real technical deal. If you've been to a David Copperfield show and watched similar tricks performed at much higher prices a lot further away from your seat, you might find the idea of $25 a revelation.
You get your money's worth. Frankly, Watkins has never had his just acclaim in the city where he's worked for 10 years. I once walked into an ordinary children's birthday party and there was Watkins, doing party tricks for his supper in someone's living room. He's doesn't have Copperfield's ego or sexual charisma, perhaps, and he certainly doesn't have Copperfield's agents, but Watkins' buttoned-down, slightly caustic on-stage personality is an ideal match for Houdini, whose approach to magic was not dependent on fans and really good hair, but on careful planning and a determination to stand above those he saw as tricksters and frauds who cheated the audience.
Houdini needed to live on the edge, and Watkins knows how to show us not just his skills and flourishes, but his dark complexities. I've seen Copperfield do that too, but only on those rare occasions when he reveals himself as Watkins does here.
To his great credit, Watkins likes to put his magic in a broader context, and so it goes here. You watch the tricks, even as you ponder the disrupted, striving, enigmatic personalities or those who choose to perform them and even as you start to wonder what a trick or two might do for you, as you grow old in the most unmagical kind of way.
House has clearly expended a lot of resources on this strikingly well-designed and well-executed show, which comes complete with a mechanized hoist and includes a thrilling set of visual sculptures from the designer Collette Pollard. While many of House show's this last decade have stirred my spirit, I don't think I've seen one with this much polish. This kind of work demands perfect timing — and that discipline has been good for Allen and the theater. The thrills of magic have been extended into the surrounding story, which, with a Grand Guignol tone, follows Houdini's relationship with his wife (Carolyn Defrin, who gets to use her dance skills and her heart) and his nervous brother Theo (Shawn Pfautsch, a fine foil). But you're never far from a big illusion.
Johnny Arena, the scary Ringmaster of Houdini's dance in the face of a Grim Reaper (a 10-foot Grim Reaper) who gets him in the end, just as he gets us all, helps us attend this tale, the beginning, perhaps of a new trick for the House Theatre, long in preparation.
When: Through Aug. 17
Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes
Tickets: $25 at 773-769-3832 or thehousetheatre.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye