When Houdini opened his 1905 European tour in Newport, Wales, Alan, who stands before us about to offer his spectacle in the same theater, was ten. He wasn’t allowed to see the show, but fixed on the escape artist’s exploits and treated the “Houdini Book of Magic” like a Bible. (Chapters are intermittently demonstrated with sleight-of-hand and advice from the performer’s ghost.) Alan would’ve left school to pursue his passion had his dad allowed.
It was during this booking that Houdini legendarily managed to get out of a locked jail cell, retrieve his clothes in an adjacent, secured cell, dress, and exit the building just as a Chief Constable was smugly announcing to press they’d release him in three days. The protagonist’s tall-tale-worthy Gami (grandfather) is Chief here. Internal inquiry into the Newport Police creates “an ax to grind.”
Eight years later, the now world famous performer returned executing another “amazement,” Alan’s term for what he couldn’t call a trick. “Everything he does takes months of hours of practice and huge levels of skill and to call it a “trick”… well it’s a bit unfair I think.” This time the boy was front and center, in fact, unwittingly, a participant. His angry Gami wasn’t far behind.
Newport born and bred playwright Daniel Llewelyn-Williams has crafted this engaging piece by stitching together real events, some experienced by his recently deceased father, with fictional embellishment. The piece is written in evocative, local syntax. Two appearances by Houdini bookend.
A brief history of Newport (unnecessary), is followed by Alan’s family life, his training and aspirations as a magician and “escapeologist” – even the great Chinese Water Torture Cell was practiced in a 4’diameter pipe. A near fatal attempt by the boy to emulate Houdini on the landmark Transporter Bridge over Bristol Channel is relived before our eyes.“…You can see right through it, looks like it needs a good meal it does…” The tragedy that took place at town docks while building the world’s largest sealock is lucidly observed. (The key word is observed. This section would be more effective with emotion evoked by his father being one of the victims.)
Real events are illuminated in the program. I recommend reading it afterwards so as to take the journey without supposition.
Llewelyn-Williams inhabits Alan from ten to fourteen, his gruff, loving father, his Gami, Yiddish-accented Houdini, and townspeople. Each character has his own completely distinct voice and physical attitude. Transition is fluid. When relating the story he talks TO not AT the audience, focusing on individuals, drawing us in.
Firsthand incidents are made palpable by the artist’s focus and power of suggestion. From childhood excitement with locks “Pick, pick, pick, pick, pick, pick… Click!..OH! IT SAID CLICK! …” to near death experience to a surprising encounter with his hero, one feels almost present in real time. We see him see – often painfully, and feel with the character. Llewelyn-Williams wisely takes his time, provoking our own imaginations.
Director Josh Richards exercises finesse. Expressive gesture feels organic. Nothing comes from nowhere. The small stage is utilized with variety and verisimilitude. Pacing is pitch perfect. This was clearly a symbiotic collaboration. Easily fixable: the first time Houdini appears onstage/to Alan, it’s not clear who he is.
A skilled, entertaining, and imaginative play, foreign in context, but humanistically familiar.
Photos by Sheri Bankes
Flying Bridge Theatre Limited presets
A Regular Little Houdini
Written and Performed by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams
Directed by Joshua Richards
Through December 31, 2017
From 1913-1929, New York’s Palace Theatre was arguably the Valhalla of Vaudeville. Among notable headliners Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, and Ethel Merman was world famous magician/escape artist, Harry Houdini. This holiday season, the Palace hosts a third iteration of the Illusionists, bringing magic in its many forms back to a grand old house where the atmosphere eminently suits.
The show is artfully packaged. Angela Aaron’s attractive Costumes are those of successful nineteenth century entertainers. There’s no doubt mustaches look better below top hats or boaters and above frock coats. Women sparkle. (There are no equal time female magicians) Paul Smith’s evocative lighting and Evan Jolly’s buoyant, dramatic music add pizzazz. The band wears white tie. Sparklers add a celebratory aura. A large, framed video screen allows the audience to observe everything up close. (NICE Studios-Graphic & Video Design) Much of what one sees is familiar to magic aficionados (most of you are likely not) but performed with flair. The show is fun.
Thommy Ten and Amelie Van Tass (The Clairvoyants)
Thommy Ten and Amelie Van Tass (The Clairvoyants), 2016 runners up on America’s Got Talent, begin theatrically, by asking the audience to rise, watch a deck of cards shuffled on the screen, and secretly select one. 98% of us chose one of two cards they identify. Later in the show, presenting an iconic formula, Ten goes into the audience borrowing various objects his blindfolded collaborator must identify. Not only does Van Tass intuit a lipstick but the Dior brand, not only that paper money is a five dollar bill, but its serial number and the birthday of its owner. In Act II, she gleans the number of scooped jelly beans.
Rick Thomas (The Immortal)
Rick Thomas (The Immortal), who declares himself “not bound by the laws of nature”, presents the chestnut illusion of open boxes in which objects and people disappear. With little personal spin, this is less effective than it might be. He’s more fun with the classic fluency of endless doves emerging from handkerchiefs (and thin air) and hosts Act II’s “The Parlor” with brio. This segment employs volunteers gathered at intermission who are called upon to participate in short bits. Hapless human guinea pigs are humorously handled. Say that five times fast.
Audience Volunteer and Jonathan Goodwin (The Daredevil)
Self avowed “Daredevil” Jonathan Goodwin is interested in pain tolerance and escapes, not tricks. He convinces a volunteer to lay on a bed of nails-not as tough as it looks. Then he replaces 1000 with a single nail on which he lays (as hard as it looks), asking her (with aid from an assistant) to break a cinder block on his chest with a sledgehammer. This is likely more of an accomplishment than getting out of a pair of regulation police handcuffs (with a pick) while hanging by your teeth from a burning rope above a bed of spikes. Theatricality reigns.
Audience Volunteer, Dana Daniels (The Charlatan), and Luigi
The funniest artist in the group is Dana Daniels (The Charlatan) and his (live) psychic parrot Luigi. Impeccable comic timing and artfully botched effects delight his child volunteer and audience alike. Expectations of the feathered collaborator are repeatedly dashed- save that he removes a card from the deck with his beak- but then, as Daniels keeps reminding us, “He’s a bird!” (What can one expect?!) In Act II, it’s not so much that The Charlatan cuts a volunteer’s initialed dollar bill out of an orange (if you’ve never seen this, it’s a wow), but all that leads up to the reveal. A stylish, entertaining performance at every turn.
Justo Thaus presents an unexpected take on his new found craft with a marionette called The Grand Carlini. On stage, we see him manipulate the doll, while the screen shows only a diminutive conjurer. Though its movement is not nuanced, the charming Carlini does, in fact perform magic.
Charlie Frye (The Eccentric); Rick Thomas (The Immortal)
Decorative Jinger Leigh (The Conjuress) commands a floating sphere and acts as an assistant. “One of the oldest tricks in the book is cutting an object in half, then putting it back together.” In 1921, British magician P. T. Selbit was the first to publicly saw a woman in half. Creative Director Mark Kalin (The Showman) executes the illusion with panache. Charlie Frye (The Eccentric) is a fine juggler but in no way the clown he’s dressed to represent.
Director Neil Dorward offers a menu of acts and effects selected for successive variation. Pace clips along with only one parentheses, juggling by Frye, clocking long. Transitions are smooth. Audience volunteers are well chosen= game, and given time to respond= well handled. The big stage is used with aesthetic skill.Patter is engaging, especially that referring to the framing period (Writer, Historical Magic Consultant- Mike Caveney)
My only caveat is the last effect. The Clairvoyants end the show with an oft used crowd pleasing premise they fail to set up. The couple lower and open a box suspended above the stage which holds a letter ostensibly written by Van Tass entr’acte. It describes half a dozen things that happened after it was written. Alas, the audience is unaware of the importance of the box until it comes down. Many have, in fact, not noticed it. We’re deprived of the usual curious anticipation.
Photos Courtesy of The Illusionists
Opening: Jinger Leigh and Mark Kalin
The Illusionists-Turn of the Century
Director/Creative Producer- Neil Dorward
Palace Theatre 47th at 7th Avenue
Through January 1, 2017