Monday, April 30, 2012

Arsht Center: Death and Harry Houdini (5 reviews)

The House Theatre of Chicago opened its production of Death and Harry Houdini at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts on April 26, 2012.
Death and Harry Houdini delivers a roller coaster ride through the life of the great Harry Houdini, brought to the stage by the great Chicago company that presented last season's acclaimed The Sparrow. Award-winning magician, Dennis Watkins, performs Houdini's most renowned and dangerous escape—the dreaded Water Torture Cell—in this dark and tumultuous story guaranteed to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.
Nathan Allen directed a cast that included Abu Ansari, Johnny Arena, Carolyn Defrin, Marika Mashburn, Shawn Pfautsch, Trista Smith, Kevin Stangler and Dennis Watkins.

Hap Erstein reviewed for the Palm Beach ArtsPaper:
Mortality issues are at the forefront of Nathan Allen’s take on Houdini, though they are upstaged by the numerous classic feats of magic that are salted throughout the play.
Although its strength is in its ensemble work, Death and Harry Houdini requires a star presence with very specific sleight-of-hand skills and underwater lung power.

It certainly has them in the charismatic and wily Dennis Watkins, who not only plays Houdini but is credited with designing the magic effects in the show.
Understandably, the rest of the show cannot measure up to the magic, though the cast sings and plays various instruments quite capably. Carolyn Defrin is particularly endearing as Houdini’s wife, Bess... Shawn Pfautsch is appealing in the underwritten role of Harry’s little brother, Theo, and Johnny Arena is aptly nefarious as the proceeding’s Ringmaster. is hard to shake the impression that the play could have gone deeper with its exploration of Houdini and what drove him to risk so much so often. Then the theatrical experience might have been a satisfying drama with some magic tricks, instead of the other way around.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
There’s magic afoot in the Carnival Studio Theatre at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts – magic and mystery, song and dance, and vividly theatrical storytelling. Nathan Allen’s Death and Harry Houdini, a play written a decade ago when the House Theatre of Chicago was just getting started, blends all those artistic elements into an entrancing, sometimes heart-stopping exploration of a superstar escape artist with mommy issues.

At least, that’s the Houdini that Allen and charismatic actor-magician Dennis Watkins offer up. Watkins, with his showmanship and daring, is vital to the success of the play Allen wrote with him in mind.
Allen tells the story of the man born Erik Weisz, hitting key biographical plot points without seeming heavy-handed. As a playwright, he’s more interested in what drove Houdini than in a blow-by-blow of his life and strange death on Halloween in 1926.
The acting ensemble works together with the detail and shorthand that come from years of shared experience. Carolyn Defrin, who played the plain-Jane mysterious high school girl in The Sparrow, is adorably effervescent as Bess – and who else would defy her mother-in-law with a tap dance? Shawn Pfautsch is Harry’s loyal, inventive brother Theo, a shy guy whose quiet little “hello” when he spots Bess suggests unrequited love at first sight. Marika Mashburn, her hair pulled into a severe bun and a big mole slapped onto her unsmiling face, gets plenty of laughs as Houdini’s demanding mama, but she’s really too young for the part, especially given how close the audience is to most of the action.
...theatergoers watch each other cringing, gasping and shuddering as the seemingly fearless Watkins does things like walking barefoot along a bed of broken bottles, fishing a string of razor blades from his mouth and dangling upside down for minutes in what could so easily become a water-filled coffin. Part theater, part magic show, Death and Harry Houdini is another polished – and thrilling – production from the House.
Roger Martin reviewed for miamiartzine:
The House Theatre of Chicago's Death and Harry Houdini is playing right now at the Arsht Center in Miami. And that's good, good news for anyone who likes their theatre as original in concept and execution as only The House seems able to produce.
The show is set in a far from ordinary circus...  a stage full of wondrously ingenious props, brilliant costumes, funny dances and songs and death defying acts as far as you can throw a straitjacket, chains, and a tank of water. And Harry regurgitates razor blades, his mother channels Queen Victoria, Death, of course, is ten feet tall and breathes through a gas mask, and did I mention the magic, the music, the dances, the acting? No, I didn't mention the acting. Because there's no need to. Everyone just was, and that's all it takes to be perfectly believable.
Eight actors will convince you there's a hundred on stage as they play God Save The Queen on kazoos, ring bells, sing and dance under big black umbrellas as they bury the poor old lady...  They can also play the trombone, saxophone, guitar, ukelele, mandolin and drums. I missed the portable grand piano but I'm sure there was one.
It's happened each time I've watched a House Theatre of Chicago production. I'm smacked right between the eyes by the glorious imagination of it all... I saw House's The Sparrow last year at the Arsht and now I've seen Death and Harry Houdini and I'm really sorry that's all I've seen from The House Theatre of Chicago.
Ron Levitt wrote for ENV Magazine:
Stupendous! – Original!  Unique!   Entrancing!  Add all these superlatives together and  throw in a few more and one might find the best way to describe Death and Harry Houdini, Nathan Allen’s superb theatrical achievement currently at the Carnival Studio Theatre at the Adrienne Arsht Center here.
One doesn’t know where to begin to give credit to this impressive play written  for and originally produced by the House Theatre of Chicago, the Windy City company’s second offering to be transplanted to Florida under an agreement with Arsht.
Above all, there is actor/magician Dennis Watkins, for whom Allen wrote this tribute piece.  It is unthinkable that anyone but the enigmatic, charming, charismatic Watkins could possibly have the skills and artistry to take on such a demanding role.
Although it is primarily Watkins’ show, the  entire cast is superb, whether singing, dancing to the excellent choreography of Tommy  Rapley,  appearing in a barber shop quartet, or scaring the audience with an eerie stilt-inspired symbolic scarer known as Death (Kevin Stangler).
Several of the cast plays multiple roles but, as in magic itself, one would think the cast consisted of  many more than the obvious eight performers listed in the program.  It is a dream ensemble backing up Watkins.
Michelle F. Solomonreviewed wrote for Florida Theater On Stage:
When the lights go up, it’s welcome to the big top: “Ladies and Gentleman, Boys and Girls” (although this isn’t a show for the kiddies) as The Ringmaster (a perfectly sinister Johnny Arena)  introduces us to the world of Houdini. In playwright Nathan Allen’s original script, death becomes an obsession for Houdini (born Erik Weisz) as we see the pain in the young man’s face as his father suffers, then dies from cancer.
The sensory overload in scenes such as this one, are many in Death and Harry Houdini, but it is so carefully crafted that it’s more entertaining, than overwhelming.
Watkins plays Houdini with a boyish charm, yet bringing out an eccentric side that borders on insanity.
There’s plenty of magic throughout performed not only by Watkins, but the other players in the ensemble, and it is methodically placed and perfectly timed to give the audience time to breathe from being consumed by elements of Houdini’s story...
Bess is played by the marvelously energetic and talented Carolyn Defrin, who appears as if this role was tailor-made for her. The story takes us through the couple’s dealing with Houdini’s aging mother (an absolutely flawless Marika Mashburn, who only speaks German throughout the play), and delves a bit into the psyche of his younger brother, Theo (Pfautsch as the perfect yin to Watkins’ yang), who has also devoted his life to Houdini’s dreams.
Houdini was a master magician, but the finely crafted work of Death and Harry Houdini is magic in itself. Part drama, part magic show, and all-out entertaining, this is a South Florida, one-of-a-kind event that audiences need to experience before it disappears.
The House Theatre production of Death and Harry Houdini plays at the Arsht Center through May 20, 2012.

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