EgoPo director Brenna Geffers’ ensemble-created works, The Golem and The Assassination of Jesse James, were unique, moody, multilayered experiences staged with flair. They set a high standard. The Life (and Death) of Harry Houdini doesn’t meet it.
This bland biography outlines the famous escape artist’s life from humble birth in 1874 to untimely death in 1926. Some of Houdini’s escapes are described, but there’s little sense of his dramatic effect on audiences; the closest is a scene where he crashes a rival’s show. We’re told he’s great, but never shown it — not that his often-dangerous escapes need to be duplicated, but Houdini’s Wikipedia page provides more excitement about his showmanship.
Robert DaPonte plays the Budapest native, born Erik Weisz, as an intensely driven social outcast and not much else. The staging falls short, too: Set designer Doug Greene seats the audience on the Plays & Players stage, making the 101-year-old theater’s house a backdrop to action squeezed onto the stage’s narrow apron. Since this is EgoPo’s vaudeville season, the theater’s red seats and faded murals suggest the theaters in which Houdini launched his career. In practice, though, the space feels hollow and underused.
Insight peeks through late in the 75-minute play, when “the highest-paid act in America and abroad” dabbles in the era’s psychic-phenomena craze. Could he contact his mother? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “the torchbearer of spiritualism,” thought so, but Houdini, unconvinced, was an obsessive debunker of mediums and the paranormal. His famous promise to come back from the other side, if he can, provides a momentary thrill — but it’s hard to expect this Houdini to return from death when he never comes to life.
Through April 7, $25-$32, Plays & Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey Place, 267-273-1414, egopo.org.
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