(By Andrew J. Friedenthal, American-Statesman freelance arts critic)
Houdini Speaks to the Living is a new play by Beth Burns (who also directs the show) and Patrick Terry that was developed by Hidden Room Theatre specifically to coincide with Austin’s Harry Ransom Center’s celebration of this October as the “Month of Houdini,” celebrating the 90th anniversary of the death famous magician and escape artist Harry Houdini.
Burns and Terry were granted access to the Ransom Center’s Harry Houdini Collection, and therein made an interesting find – a back-and-forth conversation between Harry Houdini and the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The heart of Houdini Speaks to the Living (playing, fittingly, through Oct. 31) is found in the friendship and debate between these two famed figures. Created largely from text quoted directly from the two men’s letters, the play creates a fictionalized lecture wherein Doyle challenged Houdini to recreate the various phenomena he has observed at the hands of various spiritualists who claimed to be able to speak to the dead.
What ensues is a delightful exchange of ideas, arguments, and magic, as Patrick Terry, playing Houdini, performs a variety of illusions in response to the impassioned beliefs espoused by Doyle, portrayed by Robert Matney. Some of these tricks involve slight-of-hand and misdirection, while others call upon audience participation, but they all prove mysterious and delightful, even as Houdini continually indicates that there is no true “magic” at work, merely human innovation.
Terry’s work as a close-up magician in Houdini Speaks to the Living is immaculate. The play is performed in the Hidden Room’s atmospheric Masonic hall playing space, with the audience surrounding Terry as he conjures his illusions, making his work here all the more impressive. The magic tricks are mostly old classics, but that does not make them any less mind-boggling or, at times, downright spooky, making this a perfect Halloween-season treat.
While Terry provides the show’s magic, its emotional depth is created by Matney’s powerful performance as Doyle, a sensitive soul who desperately needs to believe in the Spiritualism at which Houdini so doggedly chips away. As the play goes on, the mounting sense of tensions between the two men continues to grow, slowly leading to an inevitable, and emotional, final confrontation.
Houdini Speaks to the Living does not, of course, come to any final answers regarding the afterlife, or about the existence of magic. Indeed, it even leaves open many pointed questions about the two historical figures it features.
The most poignant questions it asks, however, are not about the metaphysical world outside of the human mind, but rather the emotional world of the human heart and the painful ways it manages to keep speaking to those who are gone, even when they never respond.