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Death and Harry Houdini Makes the Audience Hold Its Breath

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Forget the over-the-top spectacles of David Blaine and Criss Angel. The most effective illusions are the simplest: an ordinary subject, a distraction or two, and an incredibly skilled performer.

That also happens to be Death and Harry Houdini's recipe for its performance at the Arsht last night. The ordinary subject: Death. The distractions: turn-of-the-20th-century entertainment, including tap dancing, a barbershop quartet, and a black-and-white silent film. And the incredibly skilled performer? Take your pick of the cast.

There were plenty of tricks played on the audience last night: a man sawed in half, disappearing and reappearing cards, and even Houdini's classic water torture escape. But the most impressive was this: The well-executed magic tricks and engaging performances on stage managed to turn a predictable, lackluster plot into an engaging stage show that at times had the whole audience holding its breath.

With all the fanfare of a tented circus show, the play takes the audience through the whole of Houdini's life, from his boyhood days as Erik Weiss until his death. But this is no average biography. With a sparse, steampunk aesthetic, the actors move the plot along abstractly, using magic tricks to punctuate turning points in Houdini's life. Early in the show, for example, Houdini's father passes away on a deathbed that's actually a box for the old "sawing a man in half" trick.

That death, in addition to the death of Houdini's mentor, ignites a fire within young Erik that inspires him to defy Death (presented in the show as a black-clad stilt-walker wearing a gas mask), a mission he'd pursue for the rest of his life -- at the cost of his relationship to his wife, Bess; his brother, Theo; and his own well-being.

Even if you know nothing about Houdini's life story, the plot develops exactly as you'd expect: Houdini rises to fame, driven by a passion for cheating death. He meets, falls in love with, marries, and promptly begins to neglect his cheery, devoted wife. He convinces his sensible, math-minded brother to create contraptions that could lead to his demise. And like all great artists, even when he reaches the pinnacle of his achievements, he is never satisfied.

That we care deeply about these characters is less about the story itself, and more a testament to actors Dennis Watkins (Houdini), Carolyn Defrin (Bess), and Shawn Pfautsch (Theo), who inject these familiar characters and tropes with nuanced, detailed emotion. Defrin, in particular, shines as Houdini's perky wife with puppy-like devotion, coming across with a ditzy, happy energy that's somehow entirely believable.

There was one point last night where we weren't sure if we were being duped. It was the most climactic scene in the show: Houdini's first attempt at his death-defying water torture chamber. The lights had dimmed. The ensemble watched intensely as the escape artist was lifted into the air and lowered, slowly, toward the glass tank of water.

Then, in the small theater holding maybe 70 people, somebody's cellphone went off.

"Turn that off," Watkins (or Houdini) commanded, angrily, hovering above the tank.

But the phone went off again. And again, just as Watkins' head neared the surface of the water. The show's usher and one of the actors backstage rushed forward to remove the phone from an grey-haired gentleman in the second row. And the entire show slammed to a halt. The room fell completely silent as Watkins noisily breathed in and out, saturating his lungs with enough oxygen to hold his breath for the amount of time necessary to pull off the trick. The tension in the audience was thick: Is he going to be able to pull it off with that distraction? And Christ, can you even believe that guy with the phone?

Thinking about it later, the timing was a little too perfect, the suspense a little too intense, the guy with the phone a little less ashamed than he ought to have been. Was the phone a plant? It would certainly have made sense, in a show full of illusions. But ultimately, it doesn't matter. In that moment, the thrill was worth the price of admission alone.

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