Erin Shea Brady is a contributing writer and critic at PerformInk and Newcity Stage. Directing credits include: Everybody (Brown Paper Box Co.) and Cabaret, Annapurna (staged reading) and The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (No Stakes Theater Project). Erin has assistant directed and dramaturged productions at the Goodman, Jackalope, TimeLine, A Red Orchid, Northlight, and Remy Bumppo. Erin is a graduate of the directing program at Columbia College Chicago, the internship program at Steppenwolf, Jackalope's inaugural Playwright's Lab, and participated in the Goodman's Criticism in a Changing America bootcamp. Erin is a company member with Brown Paper Box Co. and is currently pursuing her MSW at Loyola.
Dennis Watkins. Photo by Michael Brisilow
Review: DEATH AND HARRY HOUDINI at The House Theatre
By Erin Shea Brady
Top of show at The House Theatre is always electrifying. This is a group that knows how to get an audience excited. This was especially the case for Monday night’s performance of DEATH AND HARRY HOUDINI. Whether patrons were seeing it for the first time or coming back for the revival fifteen years after the play’s original production, everyone was ready for some magic.
A role like Harry Houdini is a tall order. Houdini is legendary. He did things that nobody else could do, so when the magic tricks begin, expectations are high. Dennis Watkins meets the challenge head-on, a theme in this cast and production team. In Watkins’ capable and quick-moving hands, we not only buy it – we are rapt. At the House, they take great care of their audience. I usually shrink down in my seat at the thought of audience participation, but under Nathan Allen’s direction and Watkins’ mastery, to participate feels like we might be in on the trick.
The magic may be the draw, but writer/director Nathan Allen digs far deeper than the excitement of Houdini’s illusions. As the play unfolds, the showdown between Death and Houdini is intensely emotional and profound. Here is a man so afraid, so desperate to prove himself greater than Death, that he spends his whole life fighting. Allen’s depiction of Death, with great help from this excellent design team, is at once terrifying and magnificent. With such a build, I found myself wanting a little more from the ending—their final face-off—but in general, the effect was spectacular.
The ensemble is great. Marika Mashburn is hilarious and dark as Houdini’s mother. Shawn Pfautsch’s singing voice is one for the books, and he delivers an excellent performance as Dr. Lin and Houdini’s brother Theo. As the Ringmaster, Johnny Arena slyly sits on the fourth wall and sets the tone well.
In this ensemble, there is total commitment. Allen knows his cast well and plays to their strengths.
The design functions beautifully, bringing Allen’s carefully drawn world to a new level. This is a production filled with creative solutions. Each makes the play far better than it might have been if there were fewer things to solve. It is only fitting that the House would take on Harry Houdini – both are known for their boldness and risk.
I am moved to think that this was their first play. Even without this reboot’s stellar production value, what a perfect way to begin their journey of amazing feats of storytelling. DEATH AND HARRY HOUDINI is a project well-worth revisiting. This is a masterful production – wholly immersive and daring as hell.