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Wild About Harry — Two vastly disparate productions explore the life of Houdini

Dennis Watkins re-creates Harry Houdini’s deadly water chamber escape House Theatre Chicago’s productidarkly spectacular “Death Harry Houdini.”

Dennis Watkins re-creates Harry Houdini’s deadly water chamber escape in the House Theatre of Chicago’s production of the darkly spectacular “Death and Harry Houdini.”

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† Through March 11

◆ House Theatre of Chicago, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division

◆ Tickets, $25

◆ (773 769-3832;


◆ Through March 4

◆ Chicago Children’s Theater at the
Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport

◆ Tickets, $26-$36

◆ (773) 325-1700;

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Updated: March 4, 2012 8:02AM

‘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 longrunning 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


Adults, every bit as much as children, are bound to fall in love with “The Houdini Box,” the utterly beguiling, immensely inventive, hourlong world premiere musical based on the book by Brian Selznick (the author-illustrator whose book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret is the source of Martin Scorcese’s multi-Oscar-nominated 3D film, “Hugo”).

Directed by Chicago’s own theatrical magician, Blair Thomas (a master of blending live actors and puppetry of every variety), with a book and lyrics by Hannah Kohl, and music by Mark Messing, this witty, whimsical, exquisitely produced riff on one boy’s obsession with Harry Houdini is being produced by the Chicago Children’s Theatre. But with its terrific cast, sharp wordplay, deliciously droll humor (the “water torture cell” involves nothing but a Houdini puppet and a glass jar), exquisite visual aura and crystal clear storytelling, it has delights for the oldest as well as youngest members of its audience.

The show, which is about the triumph of the imagination, and the importance of perserverance and patience, addresses Houdini in a very different way than The House Theatre production. It fittingly puts a Houdini-obsessed young boy, Victor (the irrepressible, winningly youthful Alex Weisman) at the center of the story. And this boy, not unlike Houdini, is forever trying to escape the confining spirit of his Mother (the ever zesty Sara Sevigny). The transformational magic comes by way of actor Derek Hasenstab (a memorable Zazu in “The Lion King” national tour here), who plays the officious Barker/emcee, a rather soft-spoken yet wholly charismatic Houdini, and Victor’s hilarious Aunt Harriet, the mistress of suppression.

Thomas’s puppet theater backdrop and enchanting visual tricks are pure poetry, with grand contributions by two onstage musicians (Rob Cruz on accordion and piano, and Ethan Deppe on percussion), costume designer Elizabeth Wislar and magic designer Brett Schneider. At its core, “The Houdini Box” is about becoming an adult and having the magic yanked out of you — something every grownup will understand.

NOTE: “The Houdini Box” will be remounted March 14-25, at Skokie’s North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets, call (847) 673-6300.

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