The Source for Media Coverage of The Arts in Miami.
Articles, reviews, previews and features on dance and music performances and events.
Sign Up
No one logged in. Log in

'Death & Harry Houdini' Makes Another Magical Moment at Arsht


Photo: Dennis Watkins as Harry Houdini levitates Emjoy Gavino as the magician’s wife Bess.Photo by Michael Brosilow
Written by: Christine Dolen
Article Rating

'Death & Harry Houdini' Makes Another Magical Moment at ArshtDennis Watkins knows how to make an entrance.

In the House Theatre of Chicago’s “Death & Harry Houdini,” now back at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater five years after it first wowed Miami audiences, Watkins arrives onstage with the help of theater technology unknown in Houdini’s day.

Dangling upside down from the ceiling, his torso encased in a straightjacket, the actor-magician is moved electronically along an overhead track until he is stopped centerstage. Then he wiggles and twists, and 1-2-3 he’s free. Because that’s what you do when you’re playing legendary magician and escape artist Harry Houdini.

Written and staged by House artistic director Nathan Allen, the play is a magnificent piece of theater – entrancing, mysterious, thrilling.

This is the company’s seventh annual visit to the Arsht, but there’s no return planned for next year, which is a pity. The House is a special, blazingly theatrical company. And “Death & Harry Houdini,” which launched the House on Halloween in 2001 (the 75th anniversary of Houdini’s death), is a moving and illusion-filled treasure.

Credit for the show’s ongoing success also belongs to its charismatic star. Watkins, who also starred in the House’s “The Magnificents” at the Arsht in 2014, won Chicago’s Joseph Jefferson Award in 2012 for his work on “Death & Harry Houdini.” A third-generation magician who performs his own show “The Magic Parlour” at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago, Watkins is also a compelling actor who takes the audience on Houdini’s journey from a Hungarian-born boy named Erik Weisz who was fascinated by magic to a world-famous escape artist obsessed with cheating death.

Weaving together the facts of Houdini’s life, thematically pointed interpretation of those facts and fascinating feats of magic, Allen and Watkins conjure a show that captures Houdini’s essence – as an adoring son, complicated husband and fiercely perfectionistic artist.

One example of the company’s distinctive storytelling style from early in the play: As Erik, the boy who would become famous under his stage name Houdini; his elder brother Theo (Shawn Pfautsch), and their mother Cecilia (Marika Mashburn) look on, family patriarch Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz (Desmond Gray) succumbs to the cancer that has been ravaging his tongue, throat and lungs.

But instead of lying on a death “bed,” the actor reclines in a coffin-like box, his head protruding from one end and feet from the other. Two cast members then proceed to slice the man in half, seemingly separating his torso from his legs, just a few feet from those seated in the front rows on either side of the long, narrow stage. That’s how you dispatch someone in a show steeped in magic.

Watkins has added three new tricks since “Death & Harry Houdini” last visited the Arsht, one an audience-participation sleight-of-hand card trick, another an audience-participation bit that presents the very real possibility that he might mash his hand down on a hidden spike, and the third Houdini’s levitation of his wife Bess (Emjoy Gavino).

But the pièce de résistance, as before, is Watkins’ performance of Houdini’s famous Water Torture Cell escape. For heart-stopping drama, there is nothing quite like being locked upside down underwater in a clear vertical tank and living to tell the tale.

The House’s clever, gifted designers – Collette Pollard (sets), Lee Keenan (costumes), Ben Wilhelm (lighting), Kevin O’Donnell (sound and music) and Harrison Adams (sound) – create their own kind of magic, transporting the cast and theatergoers back to Houdini’s early 20th century heyday.

Watkins’ fellow performers, some of whom have long histories with the show, all have that special House multi-talent sauce, acting, singing, dancing, playing instruments and helping to execute the magic.

Choreographer Tommy Rapley, for example, does double duty as a French fraud named Hilmar and as the chilling figure of death, a top-hatted ghoul on stilts with his face concealed by an old-fashioned gas mask. Pfautsch is immensely appealing as Theo, the brother who was first to notice and take a shine to Bess, and as Houdini’s early mentor Dr. Lin. Miamian Johnny Arena is the menacing ringmaster and promoter Martin Beck, the man whose advice helped Houdini achieve worldwide fame and fortune.Mashburn’s Cecilia is an amusingly unsmiling icon to her son, a demanding monster-in-law to his wife/assistant. The radiant Gavino plays Bess with an undercurrent of the sadness that came with knowing she was third in her husband’s life, after his career and his idolized mother. Or perhaps it was mother, then career.

On opening night, after Watkins’ escape from the Water Torture Cell, a young theatergoer asked, “How did he get out, Mama?”

Audiences have experienced that sense of puzzled wonder since Houdini’s day. Now, thanks to the work of Watkins, Allen and the House, “Death & Harry Houdini” allows us to surrender to the magic one more time.

‘Death & Harry Houdini’ by the House Theatre of Chicago at the Carnival Studio Theater at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, through May 21. Cost:$50 and $51; 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.

 


Leave a comment...
Must be Logged in
No one logged in. Log in
Leave a comment...
Was this helpful?
No Very

Captcha Image

About The writer

{module_webapps,16730,i,{tag_writer_id}}

May’s “Mujeres” series of strong, multi-faceted, women-focused productions, commissioned for Miami Theater Center’s SandBox space, concludes with Spanish-born dancer-choreographer Carlota Pr..

One could say that Bistoury’s 305 & Havana International Improv Fest, which debuts this Saturday at Miami Theater Center, has been in the works for almost 20 years. In 1999 Cuban-born cho..

The process of creating “Shade,” choreographer Augusto Soledade’s latest full-length work, has been one of remembering and reconfiguring memory to discover new ways of talking about identity ..

Upcoming this week, Tigertail presents choreographer Myriam Gourfink and musician Kasper Toeplitz. Hailing from France, the two will be present for a 3-day residency at Subtropics’ South Beac..

From her home base at 6th Street Dance Studio in Little Havana, longtime Miami dance figure Brigid Baker has been slowly crafting a new performance piece. It’s not conceptual or political like con..

Karen Peterson is the artistic director of Karen Peterson and Dancers, a company that brings professional dancers with and without disabilities together in the same piece of choreography, and..

Revivals are hot on Broadway these days with “CATS”and “Hello, Dolly!“once again gracing the Great White Way. There is a certain nostalgia in taking a second or even third viewing of a belove..

What happens when urban dance style meets classical music? We’ll find out when Brooklyn-based hip-hop dance troupe Decadancetheater takes the stage, backed by Miami’s own experimental classic..

“What does it mean to belong? What does it mean to not want to belong?” These are questions that choreographer Reggie Wilson contemplates in his provocative piece “CITIZEN,“ which makes its M..

If even a modicum of redemption can be forged from the hellish after-effects of gun violence, we must listen to the communities most affected by the violence. To this end, “Trigger,” a hip-ho..

Celebrating 35 years is an amazing achievement for any dance company in Miami, but especially one founded in a decade better known for its ties to drugs than to the arts. Momentum Dance Compa..

For Tigertail Productions, April is the month of fire. Like their WATER Festival in 2016, this month’s FIRE Festival celebrates a single element in multiple art forms, including dance, visual..

During the month of April the organizers of the seventh iteration of the O Miami Poetry Festival intend every resident of Miami Dade county to encounter a poem or – even better – write one! An..

As the “home-grown” sweetheart of Miami City Ballet, Patricia Delgado is having her final performances this season before leaving the city and the company she loves to move to New York City.H..

Even people who can’t find Argentina on a map and believe tangos only happen in Paris know La Cumparsita’s iconic four beat opening. Like a bar’s last call, La Cumparsita tells tango dancers ..

Miami City Ballet will conclude its season this week with a rich selection of repertory pieces: two from Balanchine, in very expressive but distinct modes, and one from modern-dance master Pa..

Ballet Flamenco La Rosa’s studio evokes the feel of a tablao in Spain. The strumming of the guitar, the rapid-fire rhythms of footwork against the floor, and the soft voice of the singer reac..

Miami choreographer Augusto Soledade has been a fixture in the local dance world since he arrived here in 2004. His cast has shifted over the years and he continues to challenge himself artis..

In one duet, two dancers use their bodies as counterweights, springing forth from each other’s bodies with explosive power. In another, dancers form a sharp line before torsos undulate and fa..

Teacher, choreographer and activist Dale Andree is known for her ability to merge activism with dance. Andree founded and directs National Water Dance, a site-specific project that joins danc..

In 2016, Philadelphia-based Koresh Dance company crossed their 25-year mark. To celebrate, the company returns to Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts with a 25th anniversary..

From singers like Joan Baez to poets like Maya Angelou to anonymous knitters of pink pussy hats, creative women have played an essential role in this country as agitators and activists. Likew..

When Dimensions Dance Theatre of Miami (DDTM) takes the stage this weekend, it will present a program rich in the cultural milieu of Miami. Co-founders Jennifer Kronenberg and Carlos Guerra i..

It is an awe-inspiring experience to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancers perform. They are well trained dancers, athletes and artists. Not often known is that some of the dance..

Back for an 8th season in Miami, the legendary Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater packs the house every year. With Liberty City hometown hero Robert Battle in his fifth year, we have many rea..

Awash in sunlight, around 50 women stand in a circle on the rooftop performance space of Casa Gaia in Old Havana, Cuba, as part of a belly-dance festival. Biodanza facilitator Karen Rodríguez..

Choreographer Jeanguy Saintus works primarily from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but his creative work has global appeal. He is a pioneering artist who blends Haiti’s traditional music and dance alo..

Project 305 has a simple aim – crowd-source a Miami symphony. For 100 days from January 31 to May 12 New World Symphony, in collaboration with the Knight Foundation and the M.I.T. Media Lab, ..

You hear the word “flamenco” -- what image comes to mind? A guitar? A dark-haired dancer? The color red, a ruffled dress? Did a piano by any chance enter the picture? Perhaps not. Pianist..

Critics on five continents have described her work as “indecent and breathtaking,” or some close variant. One blessed her for always “going too far.” Another stated he would prefer death to m..

Buzzing his lips and shaking his head, Rafael Davila gets ready to rehearse. In the Florida Grand Opera’s cavernous rehearsal hall in Doral, the floor is marked with tape to delineate the roo..

There’s a song James Blood Ulmer sings called “Jazz Is the Teacher, Funk is the Preacher.” If you bring in Mother Blues, along with the family hothead, Rock and Roll, you’ll have a better pi..

Ask about the Miami Sound to 10 people in South Florida and you’ll get 11 different answers. And yet, for more than 20 years, the Spam Allstars, a group founded and anchored by DJ Le Spam (a..

This year’s TransAtlantic Festival features local dance music stars, a Malian guitarist known as “the Hendrix of the Sahara,” and something unique: a Haitian rara band comprised entirely of women...

If the political movement that saw its birth after the November elections is in the market for a composer to set the score for its many marches, Frederic Rzewski might be a strong contender f..

In a combo that promises to be both sublime and rip-roaring, three generations of Cuban and Cuban diaspora musicians come together this Saturday at The Miami-Dade County Auditorium to celebra..

El 11 y 12 de mayo próximo tendrá lugar en el Miami -Dade County Auditorium el estreno en Estados Unidos de Scrutiny: The World Gone Astray(en español,Escrutinio: El mundo se ha ido a la deri..

Para el pianista y compositor cubano Omar Sosa la noción de una cultura global, sin fronteras, no es un concepto abstracto sino un tema personal. En su música, elementos de hip hop y rumba, ..

No hay que viajar a otro país para disfrutar en vivo de la música cubana del momento, la más innovadora, la que le da la vuelta al mundo. Basta con asistir a Global Cuba Fest, aquí mismo, en ..

Nadie como el bailarín y coreógrafo español Antonio Gades para describir el arte que lo hizo internacionalmente famoso cuando vivía: “Un extracto de fuego y de veneno, eso es el flamenco”. ..

Desde Las troyanas de Eurípides hasta “Guernica” de Picasso, o de la canción “Blowing in the Wind” de Bob Dylan al diseño de las gorras rosadas que llevaron miles de mujeres en las protestas ..

En un discurso de 1977, el escritor argentino Jorge Luis Borges desmintió la idea de que la ceguera fuera un mundo de oscuridad cuando describió su propia “modesta ceguera”. Hablaba de ciert..

En su discurso de recibimiento del Premio Nobel, el poeta chileno Pablo Neruda afirmó que el poeta no es un "pequeño dios." De hecho expresó que el mejor poeta “es el hombre que nos entrega e..

En la cultura yoruba, y sobre todo en sus manifestaciones caribeñas como la afrocubana, las historias contadas oralmente por generaciones ocupan un lugar esencial. Esas historias, muchas de e..

En la serie artística Out in the Tropics, la tarima no discrimina, la sensibilidad de los intérpretes es inclusiva y todo público es bienvenido. Producción de la entidad local sin fines d..