Death and Harry Houdini – 2013 Remount

The House Theatre of Chicagohouse theatre of chicago
written and directed by Nathan Allen

Magic by Dennis Watkins
At Chopin Theatre Upstairs Theatre

 ‘Have fun…and don’t blink!’


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.

 House Theatre.

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

house theatre of chicago

  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.

 Highly Recommended

Beverly Friend, Ph.D.
Member ATC

 Chopin Theater, 1543  W. Division St., 773-759-3832, Tickets $40. 7:30 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, 4 and  8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through August 11. (Sundays  July 7 and 14:  close up magic with Dennis Watkins after 4 p.m. matinee.  Sunday Aug 4: pre-matinee, 3;15 p.m. conversation with Nathan Allan and Dennis Watkins).  

Leave a Reply