Death and Harry Houdini

                     At the Chopin Upstairs Theatre

                                    by Dan Zeff

Chicago– “Death and Harry Houdini” was the House Theatre’s first production back in 2001 and the show has become a meal ticket for the company over the years. “Harry Houdini” has been a success both in Chicago and in Miami and it’s now back at the Chopin Theatre, drawing sellout and enthusiastic lovers of magic, which includes just about everyone.

“Death and Harry Houdini” is built around Dennis Watkins, a fine actor as well as a fine magician. Watkins plays Harry Houdini and performs many of his tricks, illusions, and escapes at virtually point blank range in the intimate Chopin Theatre playing space.

There are card tricks, disappearing and reappearing gold fish, a character apparently divided in half in a box, and Watkins walking barefoot over a spread of broken glass (during which stroll the spectators alternately gaze in appalled fascination or look away). Most of the tricks will be familiar to magic show fans, but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining or puzzling.

The climax of the production is the Chinese Water Torture Cell. Watkins/Houdini is lowered head first into a large tank of water, his feet shackled, and all access to the tank padlocked from the outside. Shortly after the immersion, a curtain that covers the tank is pulled back so the spectators can verify that the man is actually inside, holding his breath and trying to escape a watery grave. Needless to say, Watkins/Houdini survives, reappearing in a startling manner to great applause and the relief of the audience.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

The show is written and directed by Nathan Allen as a loosely told biography of Houdini, from his craving as a young man to become a magician to his death in 1926 at the age of 52. It’s a ramshackle narrative, somewhat in the style of an edgy Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill musical from the 1920’s.

The show doesn’t demand great acting, but everyone in the ensemble does what is asked of him or her, serving as acolytes for Watkins and his flawless escapes and feats of sleight of hand. The chief supporting characters characters in the biography are Houdini’s brother Theo (Shawn Pfautch), who becomes his assistant and the architect of many of his escapes, his dancer-wife Bess (Carolyn Defrin), his mother (Marika Mashburn), an addled sourpuss of an old woman, and a boisterous figure known as the Ringmaster (Johnny Arena) who weaves in and out of the action. All four are veterans of previous stagings.

The ensemble is rounded out by newcomers Rashaad Hall, Julia Merchant, and Tommy Rapley. All the supporting players take on multiple roles and combine to make a goodtime amateur band, playing instruments from a saxophone and banjo to kazoos.

The action occasionally shifts into fantasy with the appearance of a giant and spooky black-garbed figure on stilts who represents Death. Houdini was obsessed with defeating death his entire life. He also despised fraudulent magicians who scammed their audiences, humiliating one French performer on stage for cheating on a handcuff escape act.

Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow

The audience sits in two sections facing each other. The performers are frequently within touching distance of the viewers and patrons are selected from the audience to participate (I was picked to get involved in a particularly mysterious card trick).

The limited technology effects available at the Chopin Theatre do not lend themselves to extravagant production values. Still, the show has a professional gloss with platforms and pulleys, period costumes, film clips, and dramatic lighting effects, along with equipment required for the more ambitious magic and escape displays. The design brain trust consists of Collette Pollard (scenery), Lee Keenan (costumes), Ben Wilhelm (lighting), and Kevin O’Donnell (sound and original music). Tommy Rapley created the choreography.

Dennis Watkins is a magician of Las Vegas caliber and we are fortunate that he has remained with the House company to dazzle us with his legerdemain. Viewers may believe they know the secret to at least a few of Watkins’s tricks, but they are kidding themselves.

The thing about a magic show is that it’s not magic. If it were, the audience could just write off the tricks as unknowable supernatural manifestations beyond human understanding. But Watkins’s magic is a very human achievement rooted in technique and style. I strained mightily to decipher the performer’s tricks as they unfolded, but he had me fooled from first moment to last. The show itself is a little long and the second act has too much talk, soaking up time that would be better served by more magic. But the evening is still a dazzler.

“Death and Harry Houdini” runs through July 24 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division Street. Performances are Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 4 and 8 p.m. Tickets are $45 to $59. Call 773 769 3832 or visit


The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.         May 2016

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