Blackout! Distant, running footsteps. Hollow tapping. Ghostly oooing. Out of the ink dark comes a white floating ball, then a wispy, flying spirit. “Where is my son, my good son? I am Evelyn—long gone, long gone.” Lights up to Ralph Grimshaw (Brian Linden) holding the “ghost” on a rod. Harry Houdini (George Demas) and his assistant Jim Collins (David Crabb) have exposed the so called spiritualist.
“I beg you man to man, don’t print this! I help desperate people,” Grinshaw exclaims.
Nothing on Earth is an evocative, entertaining, impressionistic view of spiritual debunking through the eyes of one of paranormal’s most ardent adherents – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes), and one of its most determined debunkers – escape artist/magician Harry Houdini.
In the 1920s, at what was perhaps the height of spiritualism, Houdini joined a Scientific American committee offering a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. He attended séances in disguise exposing a succession of frauds. Though his friend Conan Doyle was a confirmed believer, the men bore mutual respect. Both had vested interest in the “field.” Over time, Conan Doyle became increasingly convinced that Houdini himself had paranormal powers which aided in his escapes and prevented others from getting through. The relationship splintered in antagonism.
Nothing On Earth introduces Houdini and Conan Doyle during this period. We watch Houdini free himself from multiple handcuffs and leg irons as well as a buckled up straight jacket; listen to thoughts and plans as discussed with his assistant; observe his socially avoiding Conan Doyle’s spiritualist friends; and hear a series of affectionate, if somewhat cloying letters to his wife – “Yours in perpetuity, Mr. Houdini” whose attitude and possibly text is accurate.
Conan Doyle, actually later in life than depicted, has killed off Holmes enmeshing himself in the search for “confirmation” of life after death. The author’s hope is to reconnect with a son who died near the end of World War I. (He’d also lost a first wife and two brothers and by all accounts was suffering from abject depression.) Veracity includes mention of The Cottingly Faeries ostensibly photographed by two young girls in their garden. Conan Doyle not only supported the find, he authored a book about it. Houdini is disdainful. (It took decades for this to be disproved.)
Both performer and author are present at the (1924) attempted debunking of Boston socialite, Mina (Margery) Crandon (Lynn Mancinelli). The most famous medium entered in competition, Mina was broadly and successfully promoted by her husband Leroi (Brian Barnhart). An alcoholic, she performed many séances in the nude or “stroked” her male sitters appreciably increasing clientele. (When purportedly “occupied” by her brother’s spirit, Mina swore a blue streak enhancing credibility, as a lady would never have known those expressions.)
Houdini has provided his “Séance Box,” meant to keep mediums from producing effects in the dark. What occurs from here on is a matter of interpretation. Were the carpenter’s ruler and bell found in the box planted by Houdini or placed there by the Crandons? Does Mina speak to Houdini in the Yiddish of his dead mother? Is she then exposed? The stage fills with characters all of whom verbalize their thoughts and beliefs simultaneously. It’s a cacophony.
Much of Nothing On Earth is based on fact. Program thanks are extended to William Kalush, co-author of The Secret Life of Houdini and to the Conjuring Arts Research Center. Playwright Randy Sharp offers a glimpse of a fascinating slice of history and its extremely interesting participants. That the play doesn’t have an arc and ends in chaos are flaws, but not fatal. Acting is excellent across the board.
George Demas (Houdini) performs escapes with infectious focus, writes to Bess with sincerity, and skillfully embodies the artist’s intense, driven persona. Spencer Aste’s Conan Doyle is a credible, bombastic inebriate. Perhaps this is historically accurate. The character’s desperate pursuit is ably made palpable.
Lynn Mancinelli (Mina) is the find of the evening. The actress has constructed a subtle, many layered portrait of alcohol-induced edge. We see a woman as confident in the success of her act as she is in her overt sexuality. There are indications of amusement with those less clever than she and of watchful patience. Mancinelli vibrates with presence.
Direction is better with emotion than stage usage which grows messy in the latter part.
Production values are absolutely terrific. Accurate and attractive Costume Design, Karl Ruckdeschel, subtle and imaginative Sound Design, Steve Fontaine, and spooky, enhancing Lighting Design, David Zefferen, are at least as good as those of many established, uptown rep companies. Chad Yarborough has beautifully recreated the Séance Box.
Production Photos by Dixie Sheridan
1. George Demas and David Crabb
2. George Demas and David Crabb
3. Lynn Mancinelli and Brian Barnhart
4. Brian Barnhart, George Demas, Lynn Mancinelli, Spencer Aste, David Crabb
5. Mina and Leroi Crandon, Houdini demonstrating the Seance Box, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Axis Theatre Company presents
Nothing On Earth-Can Hold Houdini
Written and Directed by Randy Sharp
Featuring: George Demas, Spencer Aste, Lynn Mancinelli, Brian Barnhart, David Crabb, Brian Linden
One Sheridan Square
Through April 5, 2014