Monday, April 9, 2012

Review of The House Theatre of Chicago's Death and Harry Houdini

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Death and Harry Houdini. It was about important things that happened in Harry Houdini's life. And it is not only about Harry Houdini's life; it is about other people's lives--like Bess, and Theo, and Mrs. Weiss. The things that you learn from this play about Harry Houdini are that he takes good care of his mother, he knows what is good for him very quickly (he marries Bess the evening he meets her), and he wants everybody who is his friend to be immortal.

In the scene where you first meet Bess (Carolyn Defrin), Harry Houdini (Dennis Watkins) was just ending his magic show and he had just said, "Now it gets really tricky when you start using the potato." This is one of my favorite scenes because it has lots of funny things in it. So, Bess said to Harry, "I forgot to thank you for giving me the seat on the trolley this morning" and then they weren't really paying attention, and she says, "I was on the trolley with you this morning," and Theo (Shawn Pfautsch) said, "I was?" thinking that he was the person on the trolley. So, when Theo starts paying attention he says, "Hi, pretty lady" like he's a little scared because she is so pretty. But his brother actually ends up getting Bess, and Theo turns out to be her brother-in-law. It tells us that Theo, when he was young, like his twenties, he was a little clueless. You still like him because he is funny in that way. And when he is so scared he can't stand it anymore, he leaves and says "Bye, pretty lady" in the exact same way. I think its really funny.

In the next scene, Harry and Bess go out in a boat--it is actually just a set piece that rolls around and he paddles with her ukelele. It shows you that they are very much in love because they are out in a boat and they are singing about how they could call each other anything--like, for example, the first line of the song is "Bessie, baby...can I call you baby?" "You can call me anything" "Good." Then at the end of the song Bess says, "Harry, are you presuming marriage, but I think I feel it too!" That tells you that they are about to get married. They are a good couple. They left love notes for each other around the house; I learned that in a Harry Houdini book. The play also shows you that they are a very good couple, except for something that goes on in her head. So when he was being a little inconsiderate when he bought a dress for Mrs. Weiss (Marika Mashburn) but Bess thought it was for her, she says, "I think I just got a little carried away," and then she shoots at him. And then they are all there standing still and then they explain what Bess has just done. And then when it comes back, Harry is handed a cup, and he looks sideways at her, and spits out the bullet. I think that is really funny because he is like, "That can't get me very bad. I am an escape artist, so don't try to shoot me because I have a few tricks up my sleeve, like being able to spit out a bullet."

In the scene where Harry Houdini goes to stop this weird Frenchman called Hilmar the Great (Kevin Stangler), or something along the lines of that, Hilmar says he is Harry Houdini's apprentice when he isn't. And when Hilmar came in and said "Bonjour bonjour bonjour," then his assistant (Trista Smith) came over with a pair of handcuffs. They are acting all like "Thank you! We are so happy to be here!" by being happy and having big smiles on their faces. They're not supposed to be realistic smiles; they are smirking because nobody knows that he is not actually Harry Houdini's apprentice. You feel a little sad for Hilmar, when Harry tells him to say that he is a fraud, even though he did something very bad. He was lying, after all, to basically all of France. You still feel sorry for him because he is very nervous because he has just gotten in trouble with his "master." He admired him, and then he got in trouble with him because he did something bad to Harry's accomplishments. There is only one Handcuff King. Hilmar could have been the Jail King. But he cannot say he is the apprentice of anybody if he is actually not their apprentice. But now he can open up a new magic show that tells the truth. It depends if he will actually tell the truth or he will keep getting in trouble with his so-called "masters."

In the scene where Rabbi Weiss (Abu Ansari) dies, Harry is very sad because the doctor is telling him it might be tonight, and by it he means Rabbi Weiss might die tonight. Death and his two girl assistants saw Rabbi Weiss in half, and his feet and his head and his arms are separated from each other. I thought it was a scary but cool trick. It is a good thing to represent death because it is being cut in half and being cut in half kills you--if you aren't doing magic. I think this was a good way to represent Rabbi Weiss's death because it gives you an idea that this is gonna be a scary play.

In the scene where Bess is getting tea for Mrs. Weiss, Bess gets angry because Mrs. Weiss is not being very considerate to her. And then when she asks for honey, she said, "Oh you want me to sing" and then she sings "I'm a little teapot." And then, when she says "tip me over and pour me out," she shows her underpants. I thought it was pretty funny because I was like, "I'm not sure what to do for Mrs. Weiss right now. I feel sorry for her, but I also feel very sorry for Bess because Mrs. Weiss was being pretty mean to her."

The narrator (Johnny Arena) is there because there might be some things you cannot understand, like why would Bess fire a gun at Harry? Then he can explain it. And when Harry come out on stage in a straightjacket upside down, then you won't just think "this is a trick that Harry Houdini does," you will know it is Harry being born. I think it is good that they had a narrator, because otherwise things would have gotten pretty confusing. He sounded excited and like he was about to tell you an exciting and death-defying story, not like he was about to tell you what was going to happen to Michaelangelo. They chose the style of the narrating to fit magic, to fit suspense, to fit excitement!

I think they used dance and music because it helps explain the story of Houdini's life better than just going on and saying "This is Harry Houdini's life" with no music or accompaniment or dance. There was a lot of music and dance in his actual life because Bess was a dancer and a singer. And it makes the story more exciting and adds a little bit of panache to it. He didn't have a regular life; he had a exciting life, and usually musicals are not about regular life; they are usually about exciting life. I liked the dance and song "We are the Brothers Houdini" because it had lots of jazzy stuff and I like jazzy things. And I also really liked "Bessie, Baby" because it was a nice, slow, and romantic song.

I really thought the magic tricks brought Harry Houdini's life to life. It made me feel surprised because it made me feel like I was really seeing Harry Houdini. And if it didn't make you feel like that it might not be a very good play. But it wasa very good play. I could never see him in real life, because Harry Houdini would be 138 years old and almost nobody lives to be that old. And anyway I don't think he could do the water torture cell because he would be so old, or escape from straightjackets. I don't know if he could even play a good game of chess. We don't have Harry Houdini, but we do have Dennis Watkins who is like another dimension of Harry Houdini. He even does the water torture cell trick. He also does the swallowing needle trick--which I have no idea how he does that! He also knows how to do the Metamorphosis box trick. The magic in the show helped get the story of Harry Houdini perfectly right

People who would like this show are people who like magic, music, excitement, and mystery. The mystery is how he does the tricks. I think this show should be for ages 6 and up. You should not get tickets for the next few weeks, because they are almost always sold out. So you should see it in the summer when it is remounted. The second that you start the show, you know that this show is going to be awesome, exciting, and amazing. And it is.

Photos: Michael Brosilow

1 comment:

Kelby said...

Dear Ada,
I am a huge fan of your insightful reviews. I went to college in Chicago (Northwestern University) for theater, but now I live in Jacksonville, FL. Between you and Chris Jones, reviews keep me feeling connected to Chicago theater in a way that (1) I appreciate and (2) is pretty important, since I want to move back there and work in theater.

I am a plawright, and on Saturday, April 22nd at 6 pm, I will be back in the Chicago area (at Northwestern U in Evanston, specifically) to see a staged reading of my new play, WAR PAINT. It's part of a whole day of new plays for young people called PLAYground, which you can find out more about at

WAR PAINT is about a group of kids that sneak out to play a game in the woods on their last night of summer camp. Through the game, secrets are revealed and friendships are made or broken.

I'd be so honored if you'd attend and share your thoughts on my new story for the stage. If you'd like to be my guest, please email me at, or just show up and do what you do so well (review!). The event is free.

Yours sincerely,
Kelby Siddons

Playwright, Director, & Educator
Northwestern University, Drama '10
Episcopal School of Jacksonville, FL