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Minutes before you're released into the cell, your feet have been tightly manacled and locked into a stock. A steel frame is passed over your body as you hang upside down in the air. Your feet are clamped into the frame and securely fastened. A sudden rush of blood flows to your head. The easy part is holding your breath for three full minutes. It's the faint, rhythmic sound of your own heartbeat just as your head is submerged into the water inside the two-foot-wide chamber that causes terror to poke at your dread.
"The water torture cell is geared to being a moment of catharsis in the story," says actor/magician and cofounder of the House Theatre of Chicago, Dennis Watkins. He's preparing to play the king of all illusionists during the Miami run of Death and Harry Houdini, which opens this Thursday for a four-week engagement at the Adrienne Arsht Center's Carnival Studio Theater. "The magic serves to move the story along."
The infamous Chinese water torture chamber escape was created and made famous by legendary vaudevillian Harry Houdini. It remains one of the most complex and challenging feats for any magician. And it will be duplicated by Watkins, who portrays the enigmatic Houdini in the play, which was written and directed by House Theatre of Chicago cofounder Nathan Allen.
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Mixed with drama, thrilling visuals, and, of course, magic, Death and Harry Houdini tells the story of the Hungarian-born Houdini, whose parents migrated to the United States when he was 4 years old. It details his career and deepening obsession with conquering death. "Harry did all these wild stunts that pushed the limits of his body," Watkins says. "Our story is his fight with death, from his childhood all the way through his own death, and what that cost him in terms of his relationship with his family."
From his earliest days, Houdini, who was born Erik Weisz, made a name as a death-defying escape artist. Beginning in the late 1800s as Handcuff Harry, he performed stunts that became increasingly outrageous as he evolved into Houdini. He would be buried alive or locked inside a milk tank. There was also a trick that involved suspension from a bridge while restrained in a straitjacket.
Houdini spent a great deal of his life debunking spiritualists, psychics, and mediums. Because he was such a kick-ass magician, he was frequently able to expose others' frauds, no matter how fool-proof their claims seemed. His reasoning for all the debunking, Watkins says, was twofold: "He felt very self-righteous about the kind of magic that he thought used cheap tricks to manipulate people."
But there was also a darker reason. After Houdini's beloved mother died, he became obsessed with finding a medium that could connect him to her from beyond the grave. "When he found someone who would try to fool him into believing that they had contacted his mother," Watkins says, "he would publicly expose them."
Pulleys yank the apparatus and swing your upturned body through the air with a series of squeaks and whirs until you're inches above the six-foot-tall tank. The tepid water below innocuously sways. The audience whispers and gasps. Above the disquieting din, you hear the ringmaster's voice echoing through the rafters, explaining to the anxious crowd you are moments from being dropped into the cramped cell, with a mere two-and-a-half minutes to avoid a ghastly demise.
Houdini's dance with death became a life-long fixation that drove him to attempt greater, more complex feats, such as the water torture chamber. In Death and Harry Houdini, death becomes a character, portrayed by a stilt-walking actor adorned in black garb and a World War I gas mask. It taunts Houdini, first when his father dies during the magician's childhood and again years later when it comes to claim his mother. "I think the story carries with it a great message about death and learning to live your life instead of being obsessed with things," Watkins muses.
Watkins grew up around magic. His grandfather, who was a talented magician in his own right, owned a magic shop in Dallas. There, a 7-year-old Watkins learned the craft and developed a passion for it. "I was constantly around magic, and now it's how I make the better part of my living. The rest is theater," he says, adding rather sardonically, "and we know what kind of living that is."
Biting wit and self-deprecating humor help Watkins sink his teeth into the ego and chutzpah of Houdini, a man who laughed nightly at death's beckoning. Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones, in his review of the show during a lengthy run in the Windy City, called Watkins "slightly caustic" and an "ideal match for Houdini." Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times wrote that Watkins's "brilliance as a genuine magician and fearless stuntman" made for a thrilling show.
Death and Harry Houdini opened in October 2001 after the then-fledgling House Theatre had secured a tiny storefront space on Chicago's north side that seated about 40 people. Watkins met the theater's cofounder, Allen, when the two studied at Southern Methodist University. "He found that idea theatrically exciting," Watkins says of Allen, "so he started creating the play from there."
With a small cast and very little funding, the original water torture chamber scene was mimed with a two-dimensional frame made of wood that was placed in front of Watkins before he acted out the escape. Not until 2003 did he and Allen decide to revisit the play with more resources and add an actual water chamber rented from Canada. Watkins took a year off to prepare himself physically for the escape. "I dropped a bunch of weight and quit smoking, and I started working on my core for the very first time in my life," he says. Watkins learned very quickly that conquering the chamber was more of a mind game.
For the House Theatre's tenth-anniversary performance, Watkins and company rented a custom-made chamber from an Atlanta magician who is roughly his size. However, when the chamber arrived in Chicago, Watkins was met with a stunning surprise. "My first reaction was, 'Holy shit — it's so small!'" He realized the Canadian cell had been built for magicians of differing heights and builds. This new one from Atlanta had very little room for maneuvering and featured more complex mechanisms. Watkins had to hold his breath longer and alter his means of escape. It is the same cell he'll use at the Arsht performances. "I'm just 5'10" and I can barely fit in it standing up!" he exclaims.
Watkins is excited to bring Death and Harry Houdini to Miami. It's the first time the show has played outside of Chicago. "This production carries with it a great opportunity to see and experience a story in a different way for people," Watkins says. "I hope people are as excited here as they were in Chicago to sit two feet from the water torture cell and watch someone be locked inside of it. It's a crazy, exciting theater experience for all involved." And then, with biting, caustic humor that laughs in the face of death's summoning, he adds, "Of course, I'm inside of the box, so..."
The apparatus suddenly releases and you are plunged into the water headfirst. You have maybe two minutes before your lungs seize up and your brain becomes devoid of oxygen. Someone stands by with an ax, ready to shatter the glass casing in the event things go awry. But death is there. Watching you. Biding his time. Knowing that as soon as you panic, you will belong to him for all eternity.