If dreams are the stuff we are made of, then surely the dream of performing like Harry Houdini shines like a beacon. But those who hear the call to be a magician cannot hope to easily fill Houdini’s shoes. Houdini’s legendary escapology echoes through the decades. The magician-artist perfected his skills like none other and lived through years of death-defying performances. At the height of his career he would slip, handcuffed, out of vaults and out of glass cylinders filled with water. Too, his showmanship perfumed his knack for fabulous self-promotion. He had a superb intuitive sense that people needed to be thrilled by the threat of his death. He garnered great crowds because of it.
Indeed, Houdini’s impact on a young child fuels the solo production A Regular Little Houdini presented by Flying Bridge Theatre Limited. Written and performed by Daniel Llewelyn-Williams, the one-hour show continues at 59E59 Theaters until 31 December.
Alan, the protagonist, becomes enamored of Houdini in Newport, South Wales, where Houdini on a world tour performed a stunt and bested police to their great chagrin. Llewelyn-Williams’ Alan relates this event and many others insuring we understand how Houdini shaped his being, pluck, and drive as a magician. That Alan reveres Houdini, still, becomes apparent as he takes a moment to celebrate the success of his own career. For at this precise stage moment, he stands in the same spot where Houdini performed in Newport decades ago. Alan will entertain us with his magic. But his “magic” runs counter to what we might expect.
Alan opens with references to Houdini’s two visits to Newport. Through Houdini sequences, the storyteller traces his own history, flashing back to his past and narrating and acting out his own momentous events. Portraying his dad, his grandfather, and others, Alan reveals the love of those in his family who especially mentor him. We learn of his father, a laboring man, as well as his grandfather, his mother, and others. And we discover the horrific trials of the cargo-ship voyages of the Irish fleeing starvation in Ireland only to die in the waters off South Wales.
Alan chronicles his beginnings as a magician – reading Houdini’s book on magic, trying out tricks on friends, family, and strangers. Hence the title, said in a sarcastic tone by an adult he pick-pocketed (though he gave the wallet back). These Houdini adventures overshadow an ordinary life that would have been marred by school, hard work, and boredom. Guided by Houdini, whom he imagines speaking to and encouraging him, Alan perfects his craft. Enthusiastically he explains how Houdini inspires him to enact his own feats. Indeed, Houdini becomes his special “godfather.”
Then it happens. Even Houdini, he imagines, tells him that a feat he has thought up reeks of danger. Alan persists and nearly succeeds, but then plunges 200 feet into silt. Though eventually healing, he retains scars for the rest of his life. Yet he continues. And one day he finally meets his hero face to face, on Houdini’s second visit to Newport. No spoiler here. You just have to see the production to find out what happens.
A Regular Little Houdini, directed by Joshua Richards, entertains, informs, and intrigues. Thanks to Llewelyn-Williams’ prodigious portrayals, this one-man shows stirs, enlivens, and mesmerizes. His descriptions of the Irish voyage to Wales convey those heart-rending events with power. They inform our emotions and allow us to view the immigrants and refugees of our own time as a parallel. Also, Llewelyn-Williams’ narration and acting out of various escapes and feats, both Houdini’s and Alan’s, enthrall and add great suspense. In this his performance climbs to a majestic height.
A fault of the production is that in the set-up of events, the conflict dims at certain junctures. Though I found myself dropping out, Llewelyn-Williams’ enthusiasm overrides this playwriting fault. His portrayals stirred me back, pinging my imagination through his sheer physicality to visualize events. Thus, I cannot imagine anyone else in this solo presentation.
As a caveat, I would find it amazing and fun if the play expanded and rounded out the characters of Houdini and of Alan’s parents and grandparents. I understand the constraints on small productions, of course. But the dramatic events absolutely serve cinematically. Though Llewelyn-Williams’ physical actions propel the narrative as well as possible, the dramatic elements sometimes lose their power in this solo-presentation format.
The story indeed compels. The theme of fulfilling one’s dreams resonates. With further development and perhaps adding depth to Alan’s magician’s skills, the final humorous moments of his meeting with Houdini would really pop.
A Regular Little Houdini presents a fascinating tale about Houdini and the romanticism found deep in the hearts of the people of South Wales. It sensitizes us to the history and lives of the individuals of that time. Significantly, it covers key events and memorializes those impacted by them. In that this production offers a significant and maverick view.
The production runs until 31 December at 59E59 Theaters.