Death and Harry Houdini, House Theatre of Chicago, at Live Bait Theater. The mystics used to say that if you stacked a deck of cards the right way, riffling it would make music--or so goes the leitmotif of this "theatrical spectacle." In its debut Chicago production, the House company pulls tricks from a bag a mile deep, stringing together music, magic, puppetry, film, and a variety of performance styles. Such ambitious mixing and matching could easily result in cacophony, but writer-director Nathan Allen manages to showcase every skill of his multitalented cast and weaves the show's disparate elements into one ripping turn-of-the-century tale.
Jogging through the important events and famous tricks of the legendary escape artist's career (with an often humorous stress on his unusual closeness to his mother), the evening becomes an elegant comic-book meditation on Houdini's lifelong battle with death, personified here as a wheezing, eight-foot-tall ghoul in a gas mask; a succession of sharply executed vignettes deliberately echoes the vaudevillian roots of Houdini's act. Allen and company's original old-timey score, simple but convincing enough, frames the action while a ringmaster-cabaret leader (the excellent Johnny Arena) provides narration; Laurie LaMere Klapperich gives her period costumes a modern edge. Dennis Watkins (who physically resembles Houdini) is flawless as the leading man, yet Shawn Pfautsch--displaying a range of characterizations and accents as brother Theo and several others--almost outshines him.