Many of you have seen me use the phrase “Live theater is magical”! Anyone who knows me, knows that I truly feel this way. As “magical” as most theater is, there is one company that truly makes magic happen on their stage. This is The House Theatre of Chicago, where they are now presenting the return of their historical “Death & Harry Houdini”, presenting the story of history’s most famous “man of magic”, Harry Houdini and his war against death, the inspiration for most of his magic. Written by Nathan Allen, who also directs with stunning magic created and shared by Dennis Watkins, who is an amazing magician himself, this is two hours of pure theatrical magic (with a very definite emphasis on “magic”)!
The story begins with the death of Harry’s father, where he declares he will find a way to beat death. While he knows that death is inevitable for everyone, he searches to defy the spirit of same and feels that he can conquer what is everyone’s destiny. During our historical journey, we watch him meet his wife, Bess (the lovely Carolyn Defrin, who is quite the dancer) make the Vaudeville circuit, learning and performing new feats along the way. Watkins, a highly rated magician on his own (if you ever get the opportunity to see his “Magic Parlour” show at The Palmer House, do see it!) during this production, walks on shattered glass, does amazing card tricks, levitation and makes his plans along with his younger brother Theo (played to perfection by Shawn Pfautsch, who also plays Dr. Lynn) to build the water torture chamber.
We, the audience get to watch this historical magical trick as part of the show. The Chopin Theatre, where this production takes place, is a very intimate space, where audience members sit on either side of the “stage area” and during this particular trick, which takes place in the second act, no one is more than 100 feet away from the chamber itself. The best description for this feat of magic is WOW!!! There are some major surprises during this event, but I would never spoil the magic, and can only say that you won’t believe what you see. You will also see Watkins swallow five razor blades, drink water and later chew some string and then pull the blades back out, on the string, Another WOW! please!
The ensemble that is assembled in this cast has been trained to work with the magic that Watson brings to the stage, and each one does each phase of the production to perfection. Tommy Rapley, Julia Merchant, Rashaad Hall, Marika Mashburn (who plays Mama, Cecilia Houdini) and Johnny Arena as our Ringmaster. Each and every cast member is an important cog in the wheel that makes this show keep coming back. From the musical numbers they play, the songs they sing and of course , the magic they make in bringing this story to its very important closure, they are intense, yet fun-loving and playing off the audience who gets involved throughout the production. Watkins is very big on getting them into the show, as he knows that they will then focus more and never lose interest. I must say, that would be impossible to do. The relationship between brothers and Bess and Mama is amazingly realistic.
Side note: during intermission, I spoke with Watkins, who was saying that he may have done the water torture trick doing this production, more times than Harry Houdini himself would have done so. Houdini passed away at a young age and Watkins appears to be in great physical shape, so I am thinking he will in fact (if not already in the books) pass Houdini by and perhaps set a new Guinness Record. We will find out and let you know.
The set is designed by Collette Pollard, with lighting by Ben Wilhelm and costumes by Lee Keenan. Kevin O’Donnell handles the sound and the original musical compositions with Brian DesGranges as the very busy stage manager, making sure that each magical piece is in the exact spot. Harrison Adams is a guest artist who worked with O’Donnell on the sound. This play was the first one that The House Theatre of Chicago brought to our city 15 years ago. The show has stood the tides of time and the theater company has grown to reach new heights and should continue to do so. They are great story-tellers, finding great stories to bring to their stage. Bravo!
“Death & Harry Houdini” will continue at The Chopin Theater, located at 1543 West Division (between Milwaukee Avenue and Ashland Avenue) through July 24th with performances as follows:
Fridays 7:30 p.m.
Saturdays 4 and 8 p.m.
Sundays 4 and 8 p.m.
In July, there will also be Wednesday performances at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets range from $45-$59 (well worth the price for a show such as this) and for students, day of performance, subject to availability there are $15 tickets.
To order yours ( and I suggest you not delay) call 773-769-3832 or visit http://www,thehousetheater.com
There is some street parking, metered, but I suggest you be careful and read the signs as some of the streets are resident parking only. Public transportation might be the best way to go.
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Death & Harry Houdini)
To learn about “The Magic Parlour” which re-opens after this production closes, visit www.themagicparlourchicago.com