I was happy to have wrangled a few magical associates to accompany me to the Sunday matinee. My crew consisted of Joseph Fox (handcuff expert), Joe Notaro (webmaster of HHCE), and Mark Willoughby (producer of The Ghastly Love of Johnny X). The experienced started with the temperature that day soaring near 100 degrees. But that somehow made it a true L.A. theater going experience, which can sometimes require heroic effort.
The Sacred Fools is a wonderful, intimate theater space located off Melrose Ave in what is known as East Hollywood. You're not stepping into the Pantages, that's for sure, but that's part of the appeal. There is a tangible passion and love of theater in every bit of this cleverly laid out small space. You are warmly welcomed and made to feel like you are part of the theater family. I was also happy to see the lobby decked out in Houdini posters. Even the bathroom was peppered with Houdiniana [click for pics]. So, yeah, they pretty much had me from the start.
|Scott Leggett as Dr. Watson and Joe Fria as Sherlock Holmes.|
The first of many pleasant surprises was that the show was funny. Very funny. I might even classify it as a comedy, although it journeys into serious drama as well. Joe Fria plays Holmes very broadly and largely for laughs. I'm a bit of a Holmes purist, so I didn't love that, but it works here to shift the focus onto Watson, who has to tolerate his wildly moody and, yes, even buffoonish companion. However, Holmes' introduction and first deduction of a murder scene is extremely well done and shows us Sherlock at his full power. It's the first of several show stoppers.
The play also features Graham Skipper in a duel role as a somewhat sex-crazed Sigmund Freud and a Sherlock Holmes wannabe named Pike. Skipper is very funny and comes close to stealing the show whenever he's onstage. Other cast members include the very attractive Carrie Keranen as Violent Hunter, Eric Curtis Johnson as Mycroft Holmes, and Cj Merriman as the spirit of Watson's first wife, Mary Morstan.
|Donal Thoms-Cappello as Houdini.|
One thing that instantly jumped out at me was that Donal gives Houdini a somewhat heavy New York/Brooklyn accent. While Houdini didn't have this accent (Hardeen did), I think this works quite well. Talking to the actor after the play, he explained that he wanted to infuse his Houdini with a sense that underneath the wealth and fame is still a very tough, street smart character. The accent does this beautifully, and also works as a nice "new world" contrast to all the English accents in the play. By the way, Donal did Houdini's real voice for me after the show -- reciting; "the Water Torture Cell" -- which was great fun. (I also noticed he was holding a copy of Carter Beats The Devil.)
The actor also earns his magic stripes by performing a suspended straitjacket escape wrapped in chains during the show. This escape opens the second act and it's quite a harrowing thing to experience in such a small theater space. I hadn't expected to see any Houdini feats recreated, so this was a pleasant surprise.
|Lisa Anne Nicolai as Bess.|
Lets now talk about that staging. For me and my companions this was the highlight of the show. The Sacred Fools has a small stage with just one set. But somehow on that stage we get to see an ocean liner sailing away from a dock, a shuffle board game between Houdini and Holmes (probably my favorite piece of staging), the bustling Coney Island midway, a carousel spinning wildly out of control, and a roller coaster! All are convincingly portrayed with a mix of pantomime and clever stagecraft. Really great stuff.
|Watson, Freud, and Lisa Anne Nicolai in her role as pantomime artist.|
The plot of the play finds an estranged Holmes and Watson reunited by Mycroft to investigate a series of grisly murders. Houdini, who is name-checked as Ehrich Weiss early on, is a chief suspect. There are also nods to Houdini's Scotland Yard handcuff escape (ahem) and the Mirror Challenge (Watson was in the audience). The action moves from London to Coney Island's Dreamland Park. Part of the play explores Watson's struggle to deal with the death of his wife, Mary. The play actually has a shocking surprise ending, but I won't spoil it.
As I said, I was able to chat with the actors as well as Jaime Robledo after the show. I was happy to learn that the director is planning a group trip to the Magic Castle very soon. They were all eager that magic fans come and see the show (which runs through July 27), so let's help spread the word. The program shows that Donal Thoms-Cappello's understudy is Curt Bonnem (a magician), so I would be curious to see his take on Houdini should the opportunity arise.
The original plan for our little magic crew was to visit the grave site of Harry Kellar after the show. However, we stayed late and the cemetery was closed, so we instead wandered across the street to an antique store. There two magical surprises awaited us. The first was a gigantic original Carter poster. The other was a spotlight from the New York Hippodrome circa 1910-1920. Yes, that light could have illuminated Houdini and his vanishing elephant [click for pics].
How strange for all these ghosts of magic to have come together on this one block in East Hollywood on a hot Sunday afternoon. But that's the Dark Art of...you know who.
Photos by Jessica Sherman, Jessicashermanphotography.com.
UPDATE: A nice tweet from writer-director Jaime Robledo:
@HoudiniWild Wild about Houdini was wild about #watson2. So great to put on a great show for these guys.— Jaime Robledo (@Roblizzle) July 1, 2013