Death and Harry Houdini House Theatre of Chicago


Thu-Sat 8p; Sat 3p; Sun 7p.  

Tickets at 773-769-3832 

Live on WGN TV

Critic's Choice - "Riveting...highly polished and visually thrilling show...magic of the very highest order...Watkins is the real technical deal" - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 1/31/12

Highly Recommended - "..soars on Dennis Watkins’ brilliance as a genuine magician and fearless stuntman..ingeniously written and directed by Nathan Allen..quirky, high energy ensemble of actors, a fierce sense of play, the use of all sorts of hip visual and musical enhancements.." - Hedy Weiss, Chicago Suntimes 1/31/12


Critic's Pick "high energy and lack of artifice in a loose, buzzy blend of traditional storytelling, music and spectacle.. a thrilling ride" - Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago 2/1/12

House Theatre Box Office 773-769-3832

buy tickets

01/19/12 - 03/11/12

Thu-Sat 8p; Sun 7p.

House sells out 'Houdini'; adds shows, preps for Miami - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 2/13/12.  "The House Theatre said Sunday that it had sold out its entire scheduled run of "Death and Harry Houdini" within five days of opening and now planned to add another month of shows at the  Chopin Theatre in the Wicker Park neighborhood of Chicago.

The show, which stars the illusionist and actor Dennis Watkins, will now play through April 15. Thereafter, the show moves to the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami"



Critic's Choice - Be prepared to be amazed at House Theatre's 'Death and Harry Houdini' - Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune 1/31/12.  "Of all Harry Houdini's great feats of daring, none thrilled audiences as much as the Chinese Water Torture Cell, a transparent, fish tank-like device filled with gallons of water into which the favorite son of Appleton, Wisc., would be lowered, head first. The cover would be padlocked after the great escapologist held his breath and, with manacles around his feet, took what seemed to be a fatal dive.  Even several minutes into the trick, audiences would be able to steal a view of the submerged Houdini, still under water and beginning to turn blue.

The House Theatre's riveting "Death and Harry Houdini," which opened Sunday night at the Chopin Theatre, ends with a detailed re-creation of that very trick, performed by Dennis Watkins, a local actor and magician with an obsessive interest in Houdini and a man who has closely studied his greatest illusions and learned how to do them in homage to the master. But Houdini did that trick mostly in big, proscenium theaters. Watkins does it in sufficiently close proximity that the front rows can feel the splashes.

To say that the audience is attentive to the events taking places just a few feet in front of them at the Chopin Theatre is an understatement. The writer-director Nathan Allen stages the show with the audience on two sides, offering each side a simultaneous view of fellow audience members with eyes averted, brows covered with hands, and faces filled with varying stages of amazement and discomfort.   It's the same scene when Watkins talks a walk on broken glass.

On Sunday, I'm happy to report, both drowning and blood were averted, according to plan. In the punishing, real-life end, of course, Houdini was not so lucky, eventually falling prey, like Cyrano de Bergerac,
to a cowardly blow. And this is certainly a show very much in touch with the spirit of the real Houdini.

This new House production is actually a re-staging of the first-ever production by this distinctive Chicago theater. In essence, the show offers a fast-moving biography of Houdini, using his most famous illusions to tell his life story and illustrate his obsession with the cheating of death. But the House Theatre of today is a very different beast from the House Theatre of 2001, and what was once a scrappy and original piece of theater is now a highly polished and visually thrilling show that wouldn't be out of place in Las Vegas, and that contains magic of the very highest order. I'm not talking of actors playing around in arty fashion: Watkins  is the real technical deal. If you've been to a David Copperfield show and watched similar tricks performed at much higher prices a lot further away from your seat, you might find the idea of $25 a revelation.

You get your money's worth. Frankly, Watkins has never had his just acclaim in the city where he's worked for 10 years. I once walked into an ordinary children's birthday party and there was Watkins, doing party tricks
 for his supper in someone's living room. He's doesn't have Copperfield's ego or sexual charisma, perhaps, and he certainly doesn't have Copperfield's agents, but Watkins' buttoned-down, slightly caustic on-stage personality
 is an ideal match for Houdini, whose approach to magic was not dependent on fans and really good hair, but on careful planning and a determination to stand above those he saw as tricksters and frauds who cheated the audience.

Houdini needed to live on the edge, and Watkins knows how to show us not just his skills and flourishes, but his dark complexities. I've seen Copperfield do that too, but only on those rare occasions when he reveals himself as Watkins does here.

To his great credit, Watkins likes to put his magic in a broader context, and so it goes here. You watch the tricks, even as you ponder the disrupted, striving, enigmatic personalities or those who choose to perform them and even as you start to wonder what a trick or two might do for you, as you grow old in the most unmagical kind of way.

House has clearly expended a lot of resources on this strikingly well-designed and well-executed show, which comes complete with a mechanized hoist and includes a thrilling set of visual sculptures from the designer  Collette Pollard. While many of House show's this last decade have stirred my spirit, I don't think I've seen one with this much polish. This kind of work demands perfect timing — and that discipline has been good for Allen and the theater. The thrills of magic have been extended into the surrounding story, which, with a Grand Guignol tone, follows Houdini's relationship with his wife (Carolyn Defrin, who gets to use her dance skills and her heart) and his nervous brother Theo (Shawn Pfautsch, a fine foil). But you're never far from a big illusion.

Johnny Arena, the scary Ringmaster of Houdini's dance in the face of a Grim Reaper (a 10-foot Grim Reaper) who gets him in the end, just as he gets us all, helps us attend this tale, the beginning, perhaps of a new trick for the House Theatre, long in preparation"

Highly Recommended - Wild About Harry — Two vastly disparate productions explore the life of Houdini
Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times 1/31/12
  "‘Illusionist, magician, escapologist, stunt performer, actor, historian, film producer, pilot, debunker.” That is the short list of “occupations” Wikipedia assigns to the man first known as Erik Weisz, then Harry Weiss,  and, most iconically, Harry Houdini.

There has long been something mesmerizing about Houdini — a rabbi’s son who was born in Hungary in 1874, emigrated to the United States with his family at age four, settled first in Appleton, Wisc., and later in New York City, and subsequently became a world-famous magician and highly theatrical “defier of death.”

A man who continually challenged himself by devising the most torturous forms of self-imprisonment from which he had to escape, he became a metaphor for freedom to some, though escaping his own emotional turmoil was no doubt more problematic.

Two very different but equally superb productions about Houdini are now playing simultaneously on Chicago stages. Here is a closer look at the sleight-of-hand with which each approaches its ever-intriguing subject:


To celebrate its 10th anniversary, The House Theatre of Chicago is staging a grandly revised and decidedly lavish remount of the show that first put the company on the map here in 2001 (at the former Live Bait space),
and then, in 2003, won them a far larger audience at The Viaduct. The production, ingeniously written and directed by Nathan Allen, remains a testament to the company’s enduring trademarks (a quirky, high energy ensemble  of actors, a fierce sense of play, the use of all sorts of hip visual and musical enhancements), as well as to its now impressive polish.

“Death and Harry Houdini” — which soars on Dennis Watkins’ brilliance as a genuine magician and fearless stuntman — could not be a more apt title for this work in which The Grim Reaper (on stilts) makes recurrent visits, and the coffin of Houdini’s father morphs into the classic “body sawed in half” illusion.

Told in high vaudeville-style — which cleverly conjures the show biz world in which Houdini operated — it is part psycho-biography in the form of circus and sideshow (including tap dancing, barbershop quartet and silent film), and part spine-tingling reenactment of “Houdini’s greatest hits.” And Watkins gives old Harry a real run for his money with his performance of spectacular card tricks, a walk on glass shards, escape from a straightjacket while hanging upside down, the swallowing and disgorging of razor blades, and finally, a reenactment of the fabled “water torture cell,” which makes water-boarding seem like a piece of cake.

Along the way, with Johnny Arena as wily Ringmaster, there are marvelous little scenes — from Houdini romancing his wife-to-be, Bess (the ever intriguing Carolyn Defrin), to Bess dealing with her mother-in-law-from-hell, Cecilia Weiss (Marika Mashburn is a hoot), to Houdini being outfitted for death by his adoring younger brother, Theo (expertly played by Shawn Pfautsch), to Houdini confronting a fraud (Kevin Hilmar, who also plays Death)  in a way that suggests he was a maverick when it came to intellectual property rights.

Abu Ansari and Trista Smith add zest to the ensemble, as do Tommy Rapley’s choreography, Kevin O’Donnell’s score, Collette Pollard’s scaffold-based set, Ben Wilhelm’s eerie lighting and Lee Keenan’s costumes.

There is a whole lot more than “abracadabra” here. And audiences in Miami will realize it when this production travels to the prestigious Adrienne Arsht Center there, April 26-May 20. It might easily move on to become a long running commerical hit, as well.

NOTE: Beginnning Feb. 24, Dennis Watkins will also be performing his own acclaimed show, “The Magic Parlour,” at a 42-seat space in the Palmer House Hilton each Friday night at 10:30 p.m. Tickets, $75. Call (773) 769-3832 or

Critic's Pick - "Death and Harry Houdini: The House makes magic with a remount of the show that first established its aesthetic - Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago 2/1/12 "Marking the company’s tenth season, the House revisits its inaugural show, an episodic biography of the early 20th century’s most famous escape artist and illusionist. Nathan Allen’s script was first staged by the nascent troupe in a modest and little-seen 2001 production at the Live Bait Theater. An expanded 2003 remount at the Viaduct, which followed the company’s 2002 breakout The Terrible Tragedy of Peter Pan, helped cement the House’s status as a cause célèbre among the city’s critical establishment.

The latest remount, with the budget bumped up by an order of magnitude, makes an ideal refresher course on the elements that excited the House’s early audiences: high energy and lack of artifice in a loose, buzzy blend of traditional storytelling, music and spectacle. In this iteration, Allen’s script begins with a ringmaster (Johnny Arena) explicating the circumstances of Houdini’s early life before the man himself (Dennis Watkins) enters the space—hanging upside down from a winch in a straitjacket, from which he proceeds to extricate himself.

Allen’s script could delve deeper into Houdini’s psyche; instead, he lands on the single metaphor of the man’s obsession with defying death and holds on tight. Watkins, a top-notch magician, re-creates a number of illusions both classic—the passing of Houdini’s father is represented by Death sawing the man in half—and unique, as in the astonishing Water Torture Cell escape.

The combination of Allen’s and Watkins’s skills, direction and misdirection makes for a thrilling ride.


Highly Recommended - "Death and Harry Houdini" by Clint May,  "The best magic isn’t just about spectacle, it’s about the story. The illusions become metaphors for our shared human experience, and the mystery of existence.   That lesson is not lost in The House Theatre of Chicago’s revival production of Death and Harry Houdini, the show that put them on the map ten years ago. It’s a true wonder of Chicago theatre—mingling vaudeville with magic, prose with poetry.

Illusionist and escape artist extrardinaire Harry Houdini’s struggle with death’s reality, which looks like a danse macabre, becomes the launching point for a spectacle of sublime proportions.  As written and directed by Nathan Allen, the production wisely avoids becoming a biopic. Choosing instead to briskly touch at Houdini’s major  life events where he brushed with death (an imposing, wordless visage that escorts his victims off stage with a gentlemanly tip of his hat).
 It begins with his father’s passing, and his vow to become a master of death. Under the tutelage of carnival magician Dr. Lynn, Houdini (Dennis Watkins)  learns not just the craft of the stage and illusion, but that death is not the end of life, “just the absence of.” He meets his lovely wife and assistant Bess (Carolyn Defrin), works with his craftsman brother Theo (Shawn Pfautsch) and cares for his ailing mother (Marika Mashburn).

All the while his skill  and fame (and distance to those around him) grows exponentially, but he continues to goad death at every turn with increasingly daring stunts that bring him to the brink just so he can thumb his nose at it. It seems he has a death wish, but what he really has is a life wish.

The production moves deftly between ballads, a cappella, video, humor, pathos, and of course, magic with the supreme verve of its cast. They’re having fun and it’s infectious.  It’d be a shame for anyone to reveal what the tricks are just as learning how the trick works takes away some of the fun. It behooves anyone, however, to note the fearlessness
 of Watkins when he recreates Houdini’s most famous escape: the Chinese Water Torture Cell. It’s mesmerizing, and one wonders at not only his ability to look like Houdini, but to bring what one imagines is the same magnetic presence to the stage.

While anyone can (and should) enjoy this, it is not for the faint of heart. Some of the illusions are genuinely frightening (keep the very young ones and the sensitive at home,  or just be prepared to cover their eyes), and the closeness of the staging makes it all the more visceral. The set pieces are sparse but evoke just the right tone, matched only
 by the costuming which adds yet another level of spectacle. Houdini’s death was random and ignoble for such a monument of a man. A blow to the stomach as a demonstration of core strength ruptured his appendix, leading to peritonitis.

 The real Houdini debunked spiritualists who said there was a life after death, but had a special code he would give Bess in a séance just in case. Magicians still gather around the world to try and communicate with Houdini in the afterlife (such was the power of his legacy). As imagined by Allen, Houdini promises Death if there is a way to escape the
 afterlife, he will find the way out. Exiting Death and Harry Houdini, it’s easy to imagine if anyone could, he would.


Highly Recommended - Death and Harry Houdini.  Alan Bresloff,"Magic is in the air in the Chicago theater community! And the magician of the hour is none other than Harry Houdini ( now on two area stages), the greatest escape artists of our time! The House Theatre is celebrating their 10th year of operation with a revival of the very first production they presented, “Death and Harry Houdini,
 in a new venue with a retooled, re-imagined edition of the story of how Houdini found the love of the tricks he did as well as started creating the illusions and the escapes that made him famous.

Written and directed by Nathan Allen with some fine choreography by Tommy Rapley and some original music by Kevin O’Donnell, this show could not be the show that it is without the key ingredint,Dennis Watkins, a talented actor with a winning personality and the ability to make the magic that makes this experience a magical one for the audience as well.

The Chopin Theater stage area appears to have been gutted for this sparkling production and audience members sit on both sides of the action and large platforms on the other two sides. There are hanging objects from the ceiling surrounding the stage area as we watch the two Weiss brothers grow into men ( Weiss is the real name , not Houdini). The story may not be actual or even factual, but it is very close to what most of us heave heard over the years. This show is really about the magic of Watkins ( and even some ticks he has trained the others to do), magic that is “up close and personal”. Check out

 There are small tricks and huge ones including THE major escape- upside down into a tank of water that is locked and he is chained and cuffed- which one would think might be the finale, but there is even more. Houdini, in his entire life challenged death and stated that he would conquer it. While we all know that this isn’t possible, perhaps, becoming a legend that lives on decades after his death may just have been what he meant.

The rest of the energetic cast in this slick production that will keep your focus from start to end is composed of: Shawn Pfautsch as Theo ( Harry’s brother) and Dr. Lynn as well as Dingwall; Carolyn Defrin as Bess, his wife; Marika Mashburn as His mother,Cecilia Weiss,Trista Smith as Margery the Medium, Abu Ansari as Mayer Weiss,Doyle and a young boy;Kevin Stangler as “Death” Hilmar and boy 2 and Johnny Arena as”The Ringmaster”/Narrator. They all are involved in the big magic trick as well.Just a note- at tonight’s opening, during Watkins “walk on glass barefoot” a bottle fell in the audience, he turned and said” want to toss this up here”! These are loos actors despite the tension in what they are doing. Another magical moment in the opening night performance- a gun did not go off- the actors ad-libbed and got a laugh and some applause for getting through a difficult period. That’s what makes The House such fun- they are having fun with us and for us, making the theatrical experience special- magical!

“Death and Harry Houdini” will continue at The Chopin Theatre located at1543 W. Division ( easy access by public transportation) at Milwaukee and Ashland Avenues) through March 11 th with performances on Thursdays,Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 7 p.m.

Tickets are a mere $25. a great value and can be purchased by calling 773-769-3832 or visiting

Nathan Allen

Nathan Allen

Dennis Watkins, Shawn Pfautsch, Carolyn Defrin, Marika Mashburn, Johnny Arena, Abu Ansari, Trista Smith and Kevin Stangler

Chris Matthews (Assistant Director); Tommy Rapley (Choregrapher); Collette Polalrd (Scenic Designer); Sallly Weiss (Assistant Scenic Designer); Jamie Lindemann (Scenic Supervisor); Lee Keenan (Costume Designer); Sarah Gilmore (Sound Engineer); Will Dean (Master Electrician); Amy Prindle (Costume Design Assistant); Mieka van der Ploeg (Costume Manager); Sharon Limpert (Wardrobe Supervisor); Angela M Campos (Props Master); Ben Wilhelm (Lighting Desinger); Clare Roche (Assistant Ligting Designer); Brett Schneider (Assistant Magic Designer): Kevin O'Donnell (Co-Sound Designer/Composer); Harrison Adams (Co-Sound Designer); Brian DesGranges (Stage Manager); Kate Guthrie (Assistant Stage Manager); Catherine Haremski (Video Production-HMS Media): Christie Wessling (Video Editor); and Joey Stone (Assisstant Choreographer)

Tags: Theater, American, 2012