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      Listen Houdini
    Escaped crusader

    "Listen Houdini" opens up a little-known chapter in Harry Houdini's life — his battle against the escapism of the Spiritualist movement.


    It was the stuff of congressional hearings. Harry Houdini was called to Washington to testify about his bete noir — spiritualism. His goal was to completely debunk all mediums as charlatans. Houdini even wagered $5,000 to be forfeited if he couldn't prove eminent medium "Margery" (Mrs. L.R.G. Crandon) or any other of her ilk a fraud. Maybe he didn't like competition.

    Company: Axis Company.
    Written and directed by: Randy Sharp.
    Cast: Robert Cucuzza, John Murphy, Jim Sterling, B. Barnhart, David Yezzi.

    Related links: Official site
    He shouldn't have worried. His was a hard act to follow, after all. Who else could extricate himself from a flour sack inside a trunk wrapped by heavy chains? That scene is part of Randy Sharp's "Listen Houdini" at the Axis Theater. With great flourish, personal assistant Jim Collins (John Murphy) stuffs and locks Houdini inside Andy Biscontini's period-looking trunk. A blackout and some smoke later, Houdini has sprung himself with nary a sweat bead to show for it.

    Houdini set out for himself a greater challenge — proving once and for all that Spiritualism was rampant with phonies. That movement was at its height in the early 1920s when the magician began his attack. It would soon collapse, due in part to Houdini's efforts. Scientific American set up an experts committee (including Houdini) to investigate mediums and found them wanting. (By contrast, UFOs are barely given the time of day in today's scientific community.)

    This show is based on a personal angle — Houdini's friendship with Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Brits have always been suckers for the supernatural, and Doyle was only one more illustrious victim. He touted fake fairy pictures — clever pre-Disney concoctions — as though his life depended on the existence of invisible wee spirits in the woods. Doyle intersected Houdini precisely over Spiritualism's excesses. They exchanged letters and met repeatedly over several years until Houdini engineered a make-or-break test of Margery's psychic powers. Margery failed, and Doyle's gullibility was exposed in the process. Common ground in this remarkable friendship was fast disappearing, and this incident finally closed the door.

    Author and director Sharp has a keen eye for the theatrical. He sticks to the highlights of the Houdini/Holmes story in his script to keep the running time not much more than an hour. At the center naturally is the Margery scene. For this show, David Ramirez has reconstructed the "Margery Box" that Houdini hoped would disable her fake bells and other tricks. With only hands and head emerging, the medium can't make the magic happen, and Houdini triumphantly drags her from the box. (Margery is unnecessarily cast in drag with B. Barnhart as the medium — is it the ghost of Charles Ludlam, whose Ridiculous Theater was the predecessor of the Axis space, at work?).

    Sharp takes advantage of Robert Cucuzza's lively stage personality to maintain a spirited mood. As the title character, Cucuzza occasionally spouts excerpts from Houdini's correspondence, but otherwise the trappings of the overused docudrama format are minimal. Only when Cucuzza resorts to ranting and screaming does Sharp's concept crash. As Doyle, Jim Sterling genteelly pontificates on Spiritualism but minus the expected Scottish accent. Rounding out the cast are John Murphy (with Irish accent) as Houdini's valet Jim Collins and David Yezzi playing Mina "Margery" Crandon's doctor husband.

    Kate Aronsson places the action amid the red curtains of Houdini spectacles. Apart from the boxes, only a few period-looking chairs and table are onstage. Costumes are mostly formal and black for the men (Houdini's jacket is frayed at the edges) and rose for Margery.

    There is plenty of Houdini material for more shows. Born in Budapest in 1874, Ehrich Weiss — a/k/a Harry Houdini — grew up in Wisconsin with his mother and rabbi father. The film bio created the myth that Houdini drowned during a failed underwater escape stunt. In fact he died in 1926 from appendicitis. He is buried in Queens. His career as magician/entertainer is well known, but Sharp has remedied the lack of attention paid to Houdini's anti-Spiritualism struggle.

    DECEMBER 10, 2001

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