Dennis Watkins, whose Friday-night parlor tricks have been selling out his show at the Palmer House Hilton, is a formidable magician, steeped in the secret art of prestigitation and legerdemain, but also skilled at big-scale illusions where his torso gets sawed in half or his entire body disappears. Watkins makes in a living in the way most magicians make livings — performing at parties, corporate events, festivals and the like — but he's long been more compelled than most by the legitimate theater, starring in a series of narrative productions over many years at the House Theatre of Chicago, where he has many collaborators who understand the caliber of their very serious magical friend.
"The Magnificents," the self-penned vehicle for Watkins that opened at the House on Sunday night, is actually a remount of a production first staged in 2007. Watkins has come a long way since then — although in this particular show, not quite so much.
To put it bluntly, "The Magnificents" has some top-drawer magic from the formidable Watkins repertoire (more than enough, you should note, to greatly entertain most magic-loving folks of all ages for a couple of hours). But it remains underwritten. The piece was conceived as Watkins' tribute to his grandfather — apparently an irascible but loving fellow who passed on his talent to a grandson who has used it well. In its first iteration in 2007, this tale of secrets was combined with clowning by Molly Brennan (of "500 Clown" fame), which felt very much like two shows trying to fuse into one.
This time, the world is more consistent. We meet a ragtag circus-magic troupe called "The Magnificents," whose show, a combination of circus performance and magic, spills out from its truck. The headliner, Magnificent, is played by Watkins. We learn that he's taken a group of lost souls and turned them into artists, mostly by convincing them that they have skills: they can be a clown (played by Michael E. Smith), an aerial artist (the dazzlingly flexible Lucy Carapetyan), or a strongman (Jeff Trainor). At the start of the show, a young boy stops by the tent, sans the requisite nickel. One of the showpeople throws the mysterious kid a coin and he's in, soaking up the personalities and art in what's presumably a surrogate version of Watkins' own youthful progression toward magical mastery.
It all bubbles along pleasantly enough under Nathan Allen's direction — Tommy Rapley, who plays the Boy, is a performer with his own formidable range of skills, magic and otherwise — but the show doesn't fully work as a device to hold all these tricks together. In this new version, "The Magnificents" has taken a more explicit turn into the realm of narrative storytelling, and once you make such a leap, you then have to build more of a story. At this juncture, it feels like the show hasn't decided if it wants to be a series of tricks connected by a light narrative frame — something like you might see at the Cirque du Soleil — or something that really hangs together in terms of plot and character. To my mind, it needs to take a big step toward the latter: we need to know more about who this Boy might be, we need to better understand the relationship between The Magnificent and his wife (the warm-centered Tien Doman) and, above all, we need something more explicit at stake to drive sufficient dramatic tension. Too much of this show lacks urgency.
What I wanted most, though, was to see Watkins really delve into his own past — his presence on stage is a carefully enigmatic construction, but I've long felt Watkins has more to give, more to explore, more to reveal about his profession and himself. If he can layer that kind of vulnerability — and he'll have to pen the text to help him do so — on top of these terrific tricks, then he'll really have a show.
When: Through March 10
Where: House Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes
Tickets: $25 at 773-769-3832 or thehousetheatre.com