It was the pinnacle of suspense in an all-around suspenseful show. Dennis Watkins, as Harry Houdini, hung upside down from his feet, descending slowly into a tall glass box filled with water. The audience had been warned repeatedly that silence was paramount to the actor's successful escape.
But Death and Harry Houdini was, of course, just a show. A show about magic, no less, filled with physical illusions and sleight-of-hand tricks in addition to the usual theatrical fake-out of characters pretending to be somebody they're not. So when an audience member's cell phone rang out repeatedly at the most crucial moment -- just as Watkins' head was about to touch the water -- we assumed it was a staged distraction.
Call us jaded. No, really, you can. Because according to the show staffer who confiscated the phone that night, the whole thing was unplanned -- and dangerous.
In an email to New Times, House Theatre of Chicago staff member Chris Mathews told us:
"You make an interesting suggestion, but just thought I'd let you know, it was not staged. You're right, it was a little too perfect -- in fact, reading your article we all agree that we actually couldn't have planned it better ourselves -- really, it goes off at the top of WTC [water torture chamber], and then AGAIN, right as he's hanging above the tank getting ready to go in??? That's brilliant. But we did not plan it. That was real," he wrote.
Mathews wasn't working that opening night; he was seated in the audience intending to enjoy the show like any other theater-goer. But when he heard a phone go off in the lead-up to the water torture chamber illusion, he was perhaps the only person in the audience who fully understood the stakes for the actors on stage.
"I worked on the escape pretty extensively and am pretty sensitive to preserving Dennis and the conditions necessary for its execution, so I counted myself lucky that I was there to take care of business," he explained. "It is genuinely dangerous, and as you note, requires concentration and...balls."
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Still, he expressed sympathy for the elderly man whose phone caused all the trouble in the first place. "As for the offender, he *was* curiously unapologetic, and while we all want to hate him, I think it was an honest case of him just being a little oblivious and maybe not knowing how to turn his phone off. Even after the show when I gave it back, he didn't apologize or seem embarrassed. He just smiled and thanked me. But meanwhile my heart was pounding over what I'd done -- confronting and taking it away from an old man like that. I even texted my mom over it. But It continued to ring once I got out in the lobby with it, so I was ultimately glad I did it."
As we noted in our review, his wasn't the only heart pounding; the thrill, we noted, was "worth the price of admission alone." But, um, it probably shouldn't be repeated, what with a man's life at stake and all. So at the risk of going all crochety columnist a la Fabiola Santiago: For Christ's sake, people, learn to silence your damn phones when you're in a theater. Seriously.