There's a moment in "Death and Harry Houdini," the dazzling House Theatre of Chicago show that has returned for an encore engagement this summer, when Dennis Watkins tells those seated in the back rows of the Chopin Theatre to stand up, so they can see. At the time, Watkins, playing the famous Wisconsin-raised escapologist, is walking across broken glass in bare feet.
Each time I've seen this show, which was a big hit here in 2012 and moved thereafter to Miami, audience members have shot out of their seats as if one of Houdini's famous winches were attached to their backs. The illusion — and this is a credit both to the staying power of Houdini's signature pieces and to the felicity and veracity of Watkins' careful re-creation — is that enthralling. Each crack of the glass gets a groan; by the time Watkins has crossed the stage, plenty of people can't watch anymore.
"Death and Harry Houdini," which is written and directed by Nathan Allen, is an original narrative theater piece about Houdini, focusing especially on his lifelong desire, fueled by childhood experience, to cheat death. It makes for a serious mood, but it's as good a way in to the core of the performer as you can imagine, especially given Houdini's well-documented interest in precise calculations (many of which were courtesy of his brother, Theo), undermined by the injection of real danger, just to keep things interesting.
Arty, sometimes pretentiously arty, theater pieces about carnival barkers, magicians and illusionists crop up all the time. Most of them try to skate past the actual skills involved in those trades, especially since those skills require years to acquire. The difference with this one is that Watkins has made a lifelong study of Houdini's illusions, and he can actually do them. You might think you've seen that kind of thing before when you saw David Copperfield who, it is true, knows how to saw a woman in half and escape from chains. But one doesn't generally experience Copperfield illusions in intimate settings like the Chopin Theatre (nor at these ticket prices). Anyway, most modern illusionists are interested in their own personas, not the historical re-creation of the work of a master. Crucially, this size of venue allows Watkins to combine the big-scale Houdini pieces (with the help of designer Collette Pollard, the show uses elaborate elevation systems and other technology) with card tricks, cups and balls and such other sleight-of-hand trickery, making for a piece that truly covers the range of Houdini. That's the main appeal, but you also are left here with the feeling that honest attempts are being made to really know the man.
House Theatre has showcased Watkins in several shows; Watkins also has other magic shows. "Death and Harry Houdini," which has been around in various forms for more than a decade, now features several new illusions and a slightly different supporting cast. Tommy Rapley has joined the show and the resonant Carolyn Defrin, who plays Houdini's wife, Bess, has returned for the summer, as has the pleasingly creepy Johnny Arena, and sharper storytelling, is the ideal marriage of this unusual man and a company that understands that his sense of history is one of its key assets. This show now feels finished and deeply satisfying. And, for the record, you'll struggle to figure out how Watkins did what you just saw.
When: Through Aug. 11
Where: Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $40 at 773-769-3832 or thehousetheatre.comCopyright © 2015, RedEye