It's the last weekend to catch House Theater of Chicago's "Death & Harry Houdini." If you didn't see it the last time it was in the Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater five years ago, don't miss it again before it heads back to the Windy City.
Dennis Watkins stars as the infamous, death-defying magician Houdini, and it's just about the most perfect role for Watkins. Born in Dallas, Texas, magic and theater run through Watkins' veins. His grandfather, Ed Watkins, owned a magic shop and performed magic; his uncle, Jeff, is artistic director of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company.
The House Theater was first introduced to Miami audiences with "The Sparrow," in 2011, an original show from The House, about a small-town girl who returns home ten years after an accident that claimed the lives of her entire second grade class. Then the following year, it was Houdini that came to the Carnival Studio, written by the House Theater of Chicago's Nathan Allen, who also penned "The Sparrow."
"We actually started creating ('Houdini') when we were both in college," says Watkins, about the two attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, together. "The first production we did was right out of college, when we were both in our invincible 20s." Allen founded the House Theater of Chicago and Watkins is a founding company member. The House Theater first staged "Death and Harry Houdini" in Chicago in 2001, and then again in 2003, and 2012.
"We left Miami five years ago with it and we went back and did another run in Chicago," says Watkins. "And then we took a break from it." But in 2016, they opened it up again at the House Theater for a 15-week run.
"Yes, it has had multiple lives since we were last in Miami," admits Watkins. "Thankfully, each one we've done to me feels like the show is growing, both in scale and maturity. I also think with every big life event that happens in our lives, we get a little older and wiser. Nathan has had another child, I've experienced another death. As things like this happen, our relationship to the play gets a little deeper. I think that there's a more mature battle with death happening now than perhaps an audience would have seen if they watched it when we were 25."
The play takes on Houdini's obsession with conquering death, from humble card tricks to massive illusions including his infamous Chinese Water Torture Cell escape.
For this go around, Watkins says they've added a new trick. You may remember the 1953 Paramount film and Houdini biopic, played by Tony Curtis. One of the classic moments of the film is when Houdini does a levitation trick using his wife, Bess, who in the film is played by the incomparable Janet Leigh.
For House's "Houdini," Allen's added a levitation trick to the script, and, Watkins says, at a perfect time. "It's been placed at a moment of incredible intimacy for Bess and Harry. In that moment Harry is unable to completely focus and that levitation illusion acts as a metaphor for his iniability to dive in and go deep with his life."
The show's evolution also includes some rewrites -- no massive cuts or rearrangements, Watkins promises. "Most of what's happened on a textual basis deepens Harry and Bess's relationship, deepens Bess's relationship with Harry's mother, and Harry's relationship with his mother. Most of the changes that have happened grow the play, stepping it up a bit in terms of its deep human story."
So, why is it that for House Theater of Chicago, Houdini has had so many lives?
"We keep doing it again as a company and an ensemble because it is a very big loud solid statement of the brand of the House Theater of Chicago and when we can bring it to Miami and show it to new people, we show people that this is what the House Theater of Chicago does. It opens our doors in Chicago just a little bit wider."
"Death and Harry Houdini" plays through Sunday at the Carnival Studio Theater in the Adrienne Arsht Center, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. Performances 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Also 3 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. General admission tickets are $50 at arshtcenter.org or call (305) 949-6722.