We've always wanted to speak to the dead.
We want to experience again the personalities of the loved ones we've lost. We want to hear, firsthand, reports from anyone telling us that there's some form of afterlife waiting once our perambulating meat's defunct.
Harry Houdini, the famed escapist, wanted that. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, also wanted that. But Houdini was a stickler for truth, as skeptical (and expert in the ways of subterfuge) as only a professional magician can be; while Doyle, odd for the man who created the world's first consulting detective and deductive paragon, was alarmingly gullible.
Their difference of opinion regarding the early 1900s fad of spiritualism – supposedly communicating with the dead via various arcane methods – was contentious and eventually sundered their long friendship, tore them apart like so much fake ectoplasm in the hands of a clumsy medium.
But how wonderful that the two of them can speak to us from beyond the grave, now, can present the scientifically rigorous and emotion-fraught arguments that ravaged their association – through the magic of modern stagecraft, as created by Beth Burns and Patrick Terry and Robert Matney and the crafty crew of Hidden Room Theatre. And the speaking that's done, with Terry embodying Houdini and Matney in the role of Doyle, is in those worthies' actual words: transcribed from materials in the deep archives of Austin's Harry Ransom Center.
"I've spent so much time with the Ransom Center's incredible collections," says Burns, artistic director of the Hidden Room. "I feel like Houdini and Doyle are my roommates now, because I sit with them and look at their correspondence and listen to them bicker. My job was specifically to activate the Houdini collection on the 90th anniversary of his death. And when I found out that Doyle's collection was nearby, we were all set – I've been poring over the documents, and I've learned so much about the two of them."
"That's definitely reflected in the show," says Matney, "because roughly 75 or 80 percent of Houdini Speaks to the Living is verbatim – pulled from transcripts or letters or writings or recordings of Houdini and Doyle themselves. Eric Colleary, who's the HRC's Cline Curator of Theater and Performing Arts, is highly motivated to take this extraordinary and mostly uncataloged collection and make it available to theatre practitioners, so they can bring that research to bear."
"They've been so generous with me," says Burns, "and so helpful. And they're generous with anyone, I'll say that. If you come in there with a driver's license and a curiosity, you can go in and investigate those collections."
But this scholarly Burns – who, in addition to an acclaimed series of original-practices Shakespeare plays, has previously staged Paul Menzer's stage-magic drama Invisible, Inc., which also featured Matney among its excellent cast – didn't write the current show by herself. She requested help from, rightly enough, a professional magician.
"I'd seen Patrick Terry perform here in Austin with his Wondershows," says Burns. "He's a remarkable magician, and he happens to look a fair amount like a young Houdini. And, as it turns out, he's one of the rare breeds of magicians who started off as an actor. He's got a degree in theatre from NYU – and his class, as an assignment years ago, was asked to choose a personal hero to embody, and Patrick chose Houdini. So who else could I possibly pick? And he's living in New York right now, but he was nice enough to agree to fly back down for the show."
"The title and the play rightly put Houdini at the center," says Matney. "The play's a two-hander, so of course it's a team effort, but as Beth and I have talked about it, we've talked about Doyle as a guest of honor in what is Houdini's show – in the show we're presenting, but also in the show-within-the-show that is the play itself. Doyle's a guest and not an assistant. And at times he's an adversary. So I get to support – but also challenge."
And what of spiritualism itself? The idea of an afterlife, of continued existence on some Other Side, on the ability to communicate with those who now reside there – is this similarly supported? Or is there some other bias at play in this staging?
"I tried to be extremely respectful toward spiritualism," says Burns. "Just as I believe Houdini tried to be. I think what Houdini was really after – and Doyle was after, also – was to indict the people who were clearly charlatans, who were doing magic tricks to fool people into believing that their loved ones had come back through the power of this medium – and that the next step would be, 'Now your missing son/husband/daughter is telling you to give me your jewels for safekeeping, to sign the deed of your house over to me.' Because that was happening all too frequently – it was an incredible time to be a con man. Even though Doyle believed fervently in some of the people who Houdini felt positively were fake, Houdini himself always wished, always held open a hope, that there were possibilities of contacting the dead. I tried to be careful to not make fun of spiritualism, but to enact what the debate was over this very sensitive subject."
"One of the things I love about working with Beth," says Matney, "is that she exhibits something that I find an indicator of great art: She treats issues with respectful ambiguity, in inviting variable interpretations. And one of the things I like about this production is, without giving the game away, it just subtly invites you to question, afterwards, what you've seen."
Burns smiles at the compliment. "Houdini's challenge to Doyle," she says, "was specific: Give me anything that you've seen that you can't explain, and – with the right conditions – I will replicate the phenomenon for you. That's the basis of the play. Doyle says, 'I've seen this,' and Houdini says, 'Let me show you how that can be accomplished without the use of spirits,' and then he does."
And we the living can experience all of this with our own eyes and ears, as the Hidden Room presents Houdini Speaks to the Living at the York Rite Masonic Hall over the next two weekends, and on Halloween night, for free, at the Harry Ransom Center. The HRC will keep its Houdini-based lobby display up through Nov. 6.
Houdini Speaks to the Living runs Oct. 21-30, Wed.-Sun., 8pm, at the York Rite Masonic Hall, 311 W. Seventh; and Mon., Oct. 31, 7pm, at the Harry Ransom Center, 21st & Guadalupe, UT campus. For more information, visit www.hiddenroomtheatre.com.
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