Death and Harry Houdini | Stage review

  • Photograph: Michael Brosilow

    The House Theatre's Death and Harry Houdini

  • Photograph: Michael Brosilow

    Death and Harry Houdini (2012) at the House Theatre of Chicago

  • Photograph: Michael Brosilow

    The House Theatre's Death and Harry Houdini

Photograph: Michael Brosilow

The House Theatre's Death and Harry Houdini

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

Obsession looms large in the House Theatre’s revival of Death and Harry Houdini. What’s the obsession? Death. Why? Death. It’s something that confounds the world's greatest escape artist, but it’s also what makes him legend. As the title implies, the show certainly carries a dark element and a few suspenseful moments, but it’s perfectly suitable for kids in the 10-and-up range, despite the heavy themes.

The House ensemble does a tremendous job of blending drama with actual history, streamlining Houdini’s life—from his father’s sickly demise, to his impressionable amateur act, to his status as celebrity entertainer. Throw in a few metaphysical demons, and you’ve got yourself a good recipe for dramatized tension. The top-hat-donning, gas-mask-wearing version of the Grim Reaper appears in frequent spurts from behind closed walls, provoking Houdini throughout his life by taking away his loved ones. It’s a battle of sorts, as the magician attempts to conquer the inevitable through any manner of close-call stunts that dazzle fans and family alike.

The excitable obsession, however, turns sour when Houdini, played with panache by Dennis Watkins, looses control and alienates those around him. His fate lies within the restrictions he’s created for himself, and no amount of magic or illusion can bring him back. It’s a treat to watch Watkins, a professional magician in his own right (check out our feature about him here), perform a wide range of stunts, including a few sleight-of-hand card tricks, walking on crushed glass and eating razors. Finally (and harrowingly), the much-anticipated Water Torture Cell convinces the audience that Watkins is, in fact, Harry Houdini.

The supporting cast also turn in unique characterizations, including those of Carolyn Defrin as Houdini’s wife/assistant Bess, Shawn Pfautsch as his loveable brother Theo, and Marika Mashburn as his grisly mother Cecilia. They sing, dance and play instruments, too, taking us back to an era when magic really seemed like magic, thanks, in part, to a slower and more mysterious dissemination of information.

The House consistently amazes with its original plays and adapted versions of popularized stories, a potent mix of energy and originality. Always impressive, the company utilizes space well and with great effect. A scaffolding wall acts as a gate to the beyond, as well as a platform for one of Houdini’s death-defying feats.

But fear not, young ones. As a constant refrain throughout the show reminds us, “Death is not the end of life. It is only its absence.”

The House Theatre production of Death and Harry Houdini continues through August 17 at the Chopin Theatre. Tickets available at

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)