Before Criss Angel, David Copperfield, Penn & Teller, David Blaine and most of the other famous magicians you could name, there was master illusionist and escape artist Harry Houdini.
And for Chicago’s House Theatre, before all the other shows it created in its first decade of existence, there was Death and Harry Houdini.
After its successful Miami debut with the supernatural play The Sparrow last season, the House returns to the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts this week with its hit play about Houdini, the showman who became a worldwide sensation thanks to his skill at cheating death.
Written by House artistic director Nathan Allen, Death and Harry Houdini stars Dennis Watkins as the man who dazzled crowds by escaping from handcuffs, chains, straightjackets, sealed water-filled milk cans, crates, caskets and, most notably, the terrifying Chinese Water Torture Cell — the pièce de résistance of Death and Harry Houdini.
Pulling off the play as well as Houdini’s legendary feats would be a challenge for any actor. But Watkins, who has played Houdini in all three House productions of the play (2001, 2003 and 2012), isn’t just any actor. He’s also a magician who comes from a family of magicians.
Carolyn Defrin, The Sparrow’s mysterious Emily Book and Houdini’s wife Bess in Death and Harry Houdini, says of Watkins, “There’s no way some random actor could do all these things. It’s not just a skill set but a history and family ties. He brings all of that. It means something to him.”
Allen recalls that creating Death and Harry Houdini, which was first done in a tiny space on Halloween (the day of the real Houdini’s death, by the way), was “an effort to write theater I was interested in.”
He and Watkins had studied theater in London, picking up European techniques, and he decided to use that structure and add in an American vocabulary: Houdini; street performances; circus; magic; silent movies.
“But the No. 1 reason was because of Dennis,” Allen says. “I told him, ‘You could do that. You kind of look like him.’ ”
At the time, Watkins was hardly a Houdini expert.
“As a kid, I did a book report on Houdini, and I grew up learning magic,” he says. “I started studying him once Nathan started working on the play.”
Watkins and Allen learned all about the life of Erik Weisz, who was born in Hungary in 1874 and came to the United States in 1878. His father, Rabbi Mayer Samuel Weisz, and mother Cecelia changed the spelling of the family’s last name to “Weiss,” Erik’s first name to “Ehrich.” Living first in Appleton, Wisc., then in New York City, the young performer took the name “Harry Houdini” in honor of influential French magician Jean Eugène Robert-Houdin and started his own career at the age of 17. The innovative escape artist, movie actor, pilot and debunker of fakes became one of the world’s most successful performers before his death from a ruptured appendix — not from drowning in the Water Torture Cell (as some treatments of his life suggest) — in 1926.
“The play has evolved into the life of Houdini, told through the basic stages of his career,” says Allen. “Each phase of his ‘VH1 Behind the Music’ story comes with a different trick. …We’ve tried to create more of a Greek tragic hero who’s trying to defeat death. We paint a portrait of an artist chasing an impossibly perfect creation, but the goalposts keep moving for everyone. And his pursuit of the conquest of death keeps him from living much of a life.”
Central to the undeniable thrills of Death and Harry Houdini, which at one point features Watkins walking barefoot on broken glass as audience members on either side of the stage cringe, is the dramatic escape from the Water Torture Cell.
Just like Houdini, Watkins is lowered upside down into a man-sized, see-through box filled with water. He has about three minutes to escape — or else.
“It’s not until he goes into the tank that the audience realizes there’s no room for a trick,” says Arsht executive vice-president Scott Shiller, the House Theatre enthusiast responsible for bringing the company to Miami.
“Or that they think, ‘Oh, he’s going to die!’ ” Allen says, laughing.
Performing the Water Torture Cell escape really is dangerous. In the first Death and Harry Houdini production, the start-up company of then-recent college grads went low tech with fake box and ankle braces. In 2003, Watkins began using a real water-filled box, rented from a Canadian magic supply company. The new box is even smaller.
Says Allen, “Now it’s far more serious and scary.”
“This is far more stressful. It has been terrifying,” he says. “We have had close calls…I do have a signal, in case I get in trouble, and we run four different emergency escape plans once a week. We have an actor with a sledgehammer standing offstage.”
The playwright-director and the actor who began their Houdini collaboration in their 20s are 10 years older now. Their play has evolved, and so have they.
“In my 20s, everything Harry was doing was something to be imagined,” Watkins says. “Since then, my mom died suddenly, and my grandfather, who was my magic teacher, passed away. … There’s a deeper connection.”
“That’s a good description of how the whole project has matured,” Allen says. “When we did it before, we were dunking Dennis in a tank because we were invincible.”
Dennis Watkins pulls razor blades from his mouth in the House Theatre's 'Death and Harry Houdini.' Michael Brosilow