Thursday, May 3, 2012

Show reviews for the week of April 30, 2012

The Adrienne Arsht Center and The House Theatre of Chicago Presents DEATH AND HARRY HOUDINI by Nathan Allen.  Directed by Nathan Allen and Featuring:  Abu Ansari, Johnny Arena, Carolyn Defrin, Marika Mashburn, Shawn Pfautsch, Trista Smith, Kevin Stangler and Dennis Watkins.
Design Team:  Scenic Designer - Collette Pollard;  Composer and Co-Sound Designer - Kevin O'Donnell;  Co-Sound Designer - Harrison Adams;  Costume Designer - Lee Keenan;  Lighting Designer - Ben Wilhelm;  Choreographer - Tommy Rapley.

Michelle F. Solomon reviewed the show for Florida Theater On Stage:

Using the Carnival Studio Theater’s black box space to its advantage, seats are placed on two sides, with a long and narrow stage floor made of wood slats, and brushed to look dusty, like a circus floor.

When the lights go up, it’s welcome to the big top: “Ladies and Gentleman, Boys and Girls” (although this isn’t a show for the kiddies) as The Ringmaster (a perfectly sinister Johnny Arena)  introduces us to the world of Houdini.  Death appears as an imposing figure that frequents the play throughout. Covered in a gas mask, actor Kevin Stangler, draped from head to toe in black, is not recognizable.

The show, however, belongs to magician Dennis Watkins as Houdini. He’s one of those ultra-talented people who has a gift — a gift for entertaining, for illusion, and for believability, immersing himself in the absolute being of Houdini. Watkins plays Houdini with a boyish charm, yet bringing out an eccentric side that borders on insanity. Watkins has a thousand tricks up his sleeve, appearing to audiences first hung upside in a straightjacket, and wiggling his way out of it in seconds flat.

There’s plenty of magic throughout performed not only by Watkins, but the other players in the ensemble, and it is methodically placed and perfectly timed to give the audience time to breathe from being consumed by elements of Houdini’s story — such as his marriage to Bess, a dancer who gives up her dreams to devote her life to her husband’s career. Bess is played by the marvelously energetic and talented Carolyn Defrin, who appears as if this role was tailor-made for her. The story takes us through the couple’s dealing with Houdini’s aging mother (an absolutely flawless Marika Mashburn, who only speaks German throughout the play), and delves a bit into the psyche of his younger brother, Theo (Pfautsch as the perfect yin to Watkins’ yang), who has also devoted his life to Houdini’s dreams.

Christine Dolen reviewed the show for The The Miami Herald:

The play uses 21st century theater technology, things like the mechanism that hoists Houdini into place for the Water Torture Cell escape or the spooky lighting that makes the towering figure of Death even scarier, in service of a piece that looks and feels like it came from Houdini’s lifetime. Allen tells the story of the man born Erik Weisz, hitting key biographical plot points without seeming heavy-handed. As a playwright, he’s more interested in what drove Houdini than in a blow-by-blow of his life and strange death on Halloween in 1926.

Twin desires – beating death and appeasing a domineering mother – got Houdini’s mojo working, Allen suggests. His prettily radiant wife and assistant Bess? No so much, though the two seemed to share love and loyalty if not, from his side, passion.

In bringing his script to life, Allen draws on vaudeville, a barber shop quartet, Houdini’s famous tricks and the actors’ special skills, everything from tap-dancing to playing instruments, to make Death and Harry Houdini seem rooted in showbiz history. The period feeling is enhanced by Lee Keenan’s terrific costumes, including a dress hand-made for Queen Victoria that Houdini buys for his most special gal.

Roger Martin reviewed the show for The MiamiArtZine:

Just in case your Momma never told you, Harry Houdini was the magician and escape artist of the early 20th century and he was forever going on about beating death. “I dedicate my life to the conquest of death.” Yeah, right.  He died in 1926. Aged 52.

Death and Harry Houdini was House Theatre's first production, ten years ago. The version on display here has “ a little more wisdom and craft, ” to quote Dennis Watkins, who plays Houdini. (Any more “wisdom and craft” and my eyeballs would have have popped right out of my head.)

Eight actors will convince you there's a hundred on stage as they play God Save The Queen on kazoos, ring bells, sing and dance under big black umbrellas as they bury the poor old lady. They also pour broken glass for bare-footed Harry to tread and help stick him upside down in 154 gallons of water.

So, alphabetically speaking, the entertainers, and I mean that sincerely, were Abu Ansari, Johnny Arena, Carolyn Defrin, Marika Mashburn, Shawn Pfautsch, Trista Smith, Kevin Stangler and Dennis Watkins.

Ron Levitt reviewed the show for ENV Magazine:
It’s best described as a show-biz mixture of song and dance coupled with lots of “death-defying”  magic  and a unique biography of that famous  stunt performer and escape artist who captured the world’s fascination with magical moments  during the late 1900s. 

But, this is no simple biographic effort.  Storyteller/Director  Allen has written a mixture of choreographic excellence, distinctive story-telling, seemingly impossible magical moments plus the drama of a superstar escape artist who apparently had issues which tied him forever to his mother’s apron strings.

The magic takes priority but writer Allen brings in reality with the biographic moments.  Houdini (born Erik Weisz, later Ehrich Weiss or Harry Weiss) in 1874  and lived until 1926, when death caught up with him finally. His official  biography – realized throughout this play — shows he  was a Hungarian-born American stunt performer,” noted for his sensational escape acts. He first attracted notice as Handcuff Harry, on a tour of Europe,  where he would sensationally challenge different  officials and police to keep him locked up. This talent for gimmickry, for audience involvement and even in the cinema would characterize his work. Soon he was extending his repertoire to include chains, ropes slung from skyscrapers, straitjackets under water, and having to hold his breath for multi-minutes.”


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