Death and Harry Houdini House Theatre of Chicago


Returns after 24 sold out weeks Four Stars - "Houdini is back, more entrancing than ever" - Chicago Tribune"The stagecraft and showmanship on display are liable to knock your socks off" - Chicago Reader" a death-defying non stop theatrical extravaganza" -" fresh as ever! Thrilling enough to ellicent audible gasps...Runs on pure joy and wonder" - StageandCinema.Com

6/21/13 - 8/11/13

Thu & Fri 730p; Sat & Sun 4p, 8p. Also Wed 730p (7/31, 8/7)

Four Stars - 'Houdini' is back, more entrancing than ever - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune Theater Critic 7/17/13.  "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." -   Death & Harry Houdini - Zac Thomspon,Chicago Reader 7/11/13.  "The House Theatre's first show—which the company has remounted a couple times since its 2001 premiere, most recently last year—is back, and it's still a crowd-pleaser.   As a biography of the famed escape artist, Nathan Allen's script is pretty shallow; Houdini's obsession with his withholding mother is turned into a joke, and his lifelong mission to defy death never reaches the heights of hubris needed to evoke terror or pity. But the stagecraft and showmanship on display are liable to knock your socks off. As Houdini, Dennis Watkins flawlessly executes one amazing trick after another, culminating in a heart-stopping escape from a water-torture cell. Carolyn Defrin and Shawn Pfautsch bring an infectious enthusiasm to their roles as his wife and brother, respectively".Highly Recommended - Death and Harry Houdini - Beverly Friend,  "You had your chance four times — in 2001, 2003, 2012 and now in 2013.  If you missed this death-defying, non-stop theatrical extravaganza, don’t let it happen again. And if you saw and enjoyed it before — here’s a new opportunity to repeat the experience and discover several new magical moments. Written by and directed by Nathan Allen, Death and Harry Houdini was the inaugural play for House Theater, way back during Halloween, 2001 at Live Bait, giving a jump-start for a group of 20-year olds whose goal was — and still is — devoted to developing and producing “original theatre by daring innovative artists.” Seeking “opportunities to use movement, music, magic, combat, and dance as a means of putting the impossible on stage,” Death and Harry Houdini more than fulfills their goal. In 2003, when the play was mounted at Viaduct, I wrote that even the lack of air conditioning couldn’t diminish the treat. Now, at the Chopin Theater, there is no such problem. It is a perfect and intimate venue for watching a series of memorable scenes, many of which highlight Dennis Watkins’ extraordinary ability to create Houdini’s most celebrated escape-stunts. Highlight of the show — always — is the Water Torture Cell” where Watkins hangs suspended from his ankles in a tall, water-filled tank resembling a phone booth. Will he drown or will he escape? The answer is well worth the price of admission. (Watkins discusses his preparation for the stunt in a fascinating interview at The whole acrobatic, instrument-toting ensemble is exceptional. Several reprise their roles from earlier productions. Johnny Arena, the sprite ringmaster, joins Watkins as an old timer who has appeared in every production, and Shawn Pfautsch, as Harry’s brother, Theo, was in the very first mounting of the play.Carolyn Defrin as Houdini’s  winsome, tap-dancing wife and Marika Mashburn  as his possessive, non-English-speaking mother are perfect in their roles as they compete for Harry’s affection. Mashburn’s  twisted and embittered facial expressions would make her perfect for a wicked-witch-of-the-west role. Tommy Rapley is wonderfully sinister as the impossibly tall, masked Dr. Death, and Abu Ansari, and Trista Smith round out the splendid cast.The magic tricks — dazzling as they may be (palming cards, disappearing/reappearing objects, walking on glass, and the like) — are balanced by this exploration of a man who wanted to defy death and who — if not immortal, was at the very least invincible in his craft.  It is a life story retold through the magician’s most famous tricks and escapes. Allen’s skillfully paced story of Houdini’s struggles gathers intensity until it ultimately touches the heart as well as the imagination".

Abu Ansari; Johnny Arena; Carolyn Defrin; Marika Mashburn; Shawn Pfautsch; Tommy Raply; Trista Smith; Dennis Watkins

Collette Pollard (Scenic Design); Lee Keenan (Costume Design); Ben Wilhelm (Lighting Design); Kevin O'Donnell (Composer; Co-Sound Design); Harrison Adams (Co-Sound Design); Brian DesGranges (Stage Manager); Sarah Hoeferlin (Assistant Stage Manager); Bridgid Danahy (Wardrobe Supervisor); Will Dean (Master Electriian); Rachine Finn (Properties Master)

Tags: Theater, American, 2013