Saturday, October 10, 2015


By Toby Zinman



By Toby Zinman


Sometimes you pick ‘em right, and sometimes you don’t. This was one of my don’ts.

I chose EgoPo’s The Life (and Death) of Harry Houdini as one of my three PIFA recommendations in Friday’s Weekend section. Although I wasn’t naive enough to expect a real magic show on stage, I did expect some stage magic, and not a dramatized Wikipedia biography of the world’s most famous escape artist.

Created/written/directed by Brenna Geffers (who has repeatedly proven herself an excellent director and should stick to that), Houdini follows Houdini (Robert DaPonte) from childhood, the son of a failed rabbi (Tyler Horn) in Budapest, through his mother-obsessed, death-obsessed life. A self-invented showman, Houdini’s tricks were obvious flirtations with death, and he spent much of his later life trying to contact his dead mother (Maryruth Stine, who also plays a seductive, mean-spirited assistant) through séances. He marries (Lee Minora), partners with his brother (Griffin Stanton-Ameisen), and every setback in his career is illustrated by a punch in the stomach.

Part of the boredom factor, besides the plodding through time, is that DaPonte’s Houdini spends all his time glowering. As Geffers conceived him, he is an unpleasant, ostentatious man, lusting for money and fame. He is presented as a classic case of immigrant greed and unresolved oedipal neurosis: Why are those stereotypes interesting? The magician never emerges. The man, as well as the escape artist, is trapped in this dull play.

Since this show is part of EgoPo’s season-long “American Vaudeville Festival,” its acting style is all exaggerated burlesque. This makes for an intriguing possibility of turning the subject matter into a kind of tragic vaudeville, but it falls flat, because in order for tragedy to work, we need to feel sympathy for the characters.

If you want an imaginative, wild account of Houdini’s late performances, try E.L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime, where all the haunted passion of Houdini’s intense illusions made his nerve-shattered audiences scream. No nerves are shattered in EgoPo’s Houdini — not even Houdini’s.


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About this blog

Toby Zinman's night job since 2006 is theater critic for the Inquirer where she reviews New York and London as well as Philadelphia. Her day job: Prize-winning prof at UArts, author of five books about modern and contemporary drama, and doer of scholarly deeds (winner of five NEH grants, Fulbright lecturer at Tel Aviv University, visiting professor in China). She was recently named by American Theatre magazine "one of the twelve most influential critics in America."

Wendy Rosenfield has written freelance features and theater reviews for The Inquirer since 2006. She was theater critic for the Philadelphia Weekly from 1995 to 2001, after which she enjoyed a five-year baby-raising sabbatical. She serves on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, was a participant in the Bennington Writer's Workshop, a 2008 NEA/USC Fellow in Theater and Musical Theater, and twice was guest critic for the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival's Region II National Critics Institute. She received her B.A. from Bennington College and her M.L.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. She also is a fiction writer, was proofreader to a swami, publications editor for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and spends all her free time working out and driving people places. Follow her on Twitter @WendyRosenfield.

Jim Rutter has reviewed theater for The Inquirer since September, 2011. Since 2006, he covered dance, theater and opera for the Broad Street Review, and has also written for many suburban newspapers, including The Main Line Times. In 2009, the National Endowment for the Arts awarded him a Fellowship in Arts Journalism. Thames & Hudson released his updated and revised version of Ballet and Modern Dance in June, 2012. From 1998 to 2005, he taught philosophy and logic at Drexel, and then Widener University. He also coaches Olympic Weightlifting for Liberty Barbell, and has competed at the national level in that sport since 2001.

Merilyn Jackson regularly writes on dance for The Inquirer and other publications. She specializes in the arts, literature, food, travel, and Eastern European culture and politics. In 2001, she was dance critic in residence at the Festival of Contemporary Dance in Bytom, Poland; in 2005, she received an NEA Critics’ Fellowship to Duke University’s Institute for Dance Criticism. She likes to say that dance was her first love but that when she discovered writing she began to cheat on dance. Now that she writes about dance, she’s made an honest woman of herself, although she also writes poetry.

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