Playwright: Nathan Allen. At: The House Theatre of Chicago at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets: 773-769-3832; www.thehousetheatre.com; $25. Runs through: March 11
A rabbi's son born in Hungary in 1874, Erik Weisz grew up in Appleton, Wis., (hard to believe) and New York City, and was a champion cross-country runner before turning to magic. By his death in 1926, he was a showbiz superstar and an immortal of popular culture as Harry Houdini. Today, 85 years after his death, the name "Houdini" remains synonymous with magic and seemingly impossible escapes.
Many detailssuch as the place of his birth, where he grew up and his Jewish heritageare missing or barely present in Death and Harry Houdini, but that doesn't stop it from being gangbusters entertainment presented with all the bells and whistles that the House Theatre famously musters. Written and directed as a vaudeville show by company artistic director Nathan Allen, Death and Harry Houdini incorporates live music, dance and caricature. It was The House's first show in Chicago, and this enlarged revival honors the troupe's 10th anniversary.
At the center then and now is founding company member Dennis Watkins, a master of sleight-of-hand magic as well as of the daring escapes pioneered by Houdini and his magician brother, Theo (a behind-the-scenes figure in this show, although he had a long and successful performing career). Watkins flawlessly performs various escapes from straitjackets, boxes, locks and chains as well as Houdini's "death-defying" upside-down water-torture cell escape. He also walks on broken glass.
Looking and feeling like a Lookingglass Theatre circus show, Death and Harry Houdini has charisma and color, a class act that nonetheless retains appropriate carnival vulgarity in substantial part thanks to the design team of Collette Pollard and Sally Weiss (scenic), Lee Keenan and Amy Prindle (costumes) and Ben Wilhelm (lighting).
The magic is under Watkins' personal supervision, as it must be. He makes it clear, as Houdini did, that some daring stunts (walking on glass, straitjacket escape) are matters of physical discipline involving no special tricks or secrets. However, the curtain of "magic" is drawn on what are called big-box illusions such as the cell escape, which retain their thrill and danger.
Dazzle notwithstanding, this isn't as profound a piece as The House has developed since. Houdini's fascination with conquering mortality through death-defying feats is a constant theme in the show, yet his deep interest in the afterlife and his repeated debunking of phony spiritualists is not handled. Houdini and his wife famously had a pact that he would contact her from the beyond, if such communication was possible. She held séances on his death date for 10 years before giving up. This absence makes the show's portrait of Houdini somewhat superficial, but doesn't diminish the pleasures and dynamism of this grand vaudeville.