OFFBEAT: Final weekend to experience 'Death and Harry Houdini' at Chopin Theatre

Phil Potempa's daily entertainment news column
2013-08-17T00:00:00Z OFFBEAT: Final weekend to experience 'Death and Harry Houdini' at Chopin TheatreBy Philip Potempa, (219) 852-4327

Dennis Watkins is more than a magician.

He is an artist with the power to grasp an audience by their attention span and transport an entire theater of engaged on onlookers to a world where to suspend reason and disbelief is the norm. And along the way, Watkins always shares history, fact from fiction and much to learn along the way.

The House Theatre of Chicago's hit production "Death and Harry Houdini," stars the incomparable Watkins and continues to pack in audiences at The Chopin Theatre at 1543 W. Division St. The company announced an extension, adding seven performances, and here's your final chance to catch it and get caught up in the magic before it closes Sunday.

The production, as beautifully presented writer-director Nathan Allen, serves as a fascinating and entertaining journey of the all-too-shore life (he died on Halloween in 1926 at age 52) of the world's greatest magician and escape artist. A ringmaster, a haunting performance by Johnny Arena, leads the audience the events of Harry's life, all told through stunning magic, poignant dialogue and original music. From the untimely passing of his father and his obsession for pleasing his "old country" mother (grimacing show favorite Marika Mashburn) and her Budapest beliefs, through his first tent shows with his younger brother Theo, played with nervous patter by Shawn Pfautsch, meeting his wife Bess, a fine turn by talented Carolyn Defrin and beginning a journey towards fame on the vaudeville circuit. All the while, Harry feels "Death" close on his heels and he won't rest until he's conquered him once and for all. During the course of the two hour and 15-minute (one intermission) run, Dennis as Harry, walks on broken glass, swallows razor blades and risks his life in the ultimate finale: The Water Torture Cell. It's also great to see the effervescent ball of entertaining energy that is actress Trista Smith, who I've always enjoyed in the spotlight since her days with David Cerda's Hell in a Handbag productions.

This production has been around in various incarnations since 2001. But for the 2013 production, Allen and Watkins have incorporated additional magic into the story, including a full-body levitation and an appearance of an entire school of fish.

As for the finale, Watkins really does perform Houdini's most infamous stage escape, The Water Torture Cell, in which he is locked upside down in a tank of water, with only as much time to escape as he has air in his lungs. The Water Torture Cell, as performed by Houdini, is a rarely-seen stage escape. Furthermore, I'm told The House Theatre Company boasts the first-ever recorded performance of The Water Torture Cell "in the round," with audiences seated with vantage points on all sides. This escape gives the audience the one-of-a-kind opportunity to witness magical history from inches away in this intimate seating setting, while entranced by designer Collette Pollard.

The remaining four performances this weekend before the production closes are 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. All extension tickets are $49 at and (773) 769-3832. (Magician Dennis Watkins also performs his intimate The Magic Parlour magic show at The Palmer House Hilton in Downtown Chicago.)

The House is Chicago's premier home for original works of physical and spectacle storytelling. Founded and led by Artistic Director Nathan Allen and driven by an interdisciplinary ensemble of Chicago’s next generation of great storytellers, The House aims to become a laboratory and platform for the evolution of the American theater as an inclusive and popular art form.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer. He can be reached at or (219) 852-4327.

Copyright 2014 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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