Dennis Watkins is one of those people whose career path was clear from a very early age. When adults ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, “magician” is not an answer likely to meet much respect—but Watkins had a pedigree in his favor: His grandfather, Ed Watkins, owned a magic shop in Dallas, where Dennis spent a significant part of his childhood, soaking up skills. By the time he was nine, he was performing at community events.
Now a 33-year-old Chicagoan, the performer makes the most of his many talents by headlining the triumphant Death and Harry Houdini—a role he originated in 2001,when it was the debut production of the House Theatre. “[My grandfather] would get such a big kick out of it,” Watkins says. “There’s magic that he taught me move for move, step for step, in this show.”
Houdini playwright-director Nathan Allen befriended Watkins in college in Texas in the late ’90s; when they began talking about founding their own company, the pieces came together. “Houdini lived in different places and performed in all these different traditions,” Allen says, “so a story about him would include all these things we wanted to experiment with, like magic and vaudeville and silent film and clowning.” He also realized: “We have Dennis, and he can actually do all that stuff, and he actually kinda looks like Houdini. It was a natural fit.”
The current remount, recommended for kids nine (or so) and up, opened this winter to uniformly rave reviews and quickly sold out. Following a late-spring run in Florida, it returns to Chopin Theatre in the Ukrainian Village for six weeks, beginning July 7.
Among the many tricks Watkins performs during the two-act show—also packed with live music, comedy and drama—one stands head and shoulders above the rest (well, feet and shackled ankles). It’s the fabled escape artist’s Water Torture Cell stunt, which involves Watkins getting lowered, head first, into a vertical tank full of water; the lid is then padlocked into place from the outside.
Without question, he admits, it’s the hardest part of the show. Channeling Houdini to this intense degree keeps him healthier: He can hold his breath for more than two minutes. “When you get up to the two-minute-thirty-second mark,” Watkins notes, “you’re very aware of every second going by.”
Without divulging the daring details, Watkins assures us that he and his castmates have drilled their safety contingency in case anything goes awry, which it never has. That’s a good sign, because the show (as the title suggests) is already haunted by death—embodied by a towering dark figure wearing a gas mask.
“When we started to realize a lot of kids were coming to the show,” he says, “immediately I was like, ‘Oh my God, I swallow razor blades, I walk on glass, I lock myself in a box—do we need some kind of disclaimer on this show?’ But it’s not packed with sex or dirty language or crazy violence. Even the darker parts are really imaginative. Once you’re 8 or 9, it turns into, ‘Ooh, he’s wearing a gas mask, that’s really cool.’
“We’ve had kids show up wearing top hats and capes and holding magic wands,” he continues. “It’s so great.”
Although Watkins’s grandfather saw an early iteration of Houdini, he died several years ago. Naturally, his grandson thinks about him a lot these days. “He was a great teacher,” Watkins says. “He had some really strong opinions about performing magic: It’s not necessarily about fooling people—although it’s going to have to do that—but about making people feel like they’re a kid again.”
The House Theatre’s Death and Harry Houdini reappears July 7–August 17.