Thursday, March 06, 2014

Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini)

Axis Company's Nothing on Earth (Can Hold Houdini), written and directed by artistic director Randy Sharp, has all the ingredients of a fascinating and thought-provoking thriller. Harry Houdini! Arthur Conan Doyle! Seances! Con artists! Yet the show is remarkably uninteresting, with 75 minutes of confusing build-up and 10 minutes of cop-out denouement.

Harry Houdini
Houdini, in addition to being an accomplished magician and the world's foremost escape artist, was devoted to exposing the tricks behind ostensible supernatural abilities. In contrast, Doyle, who was desperate to communicate with his late son, believed in spiritualism, fairies, automatic writing, and ectoplasm. Doyle was even convinced that Houdini himself had supernatural powers, despite Houdini's insistence that his tricks were just that: tricks. Their differences eventually destroyed their friendship. (It helps if you go in knowing this--and more--since the exposition is unfocused and unclear.)

Nothing on Earth begins in total darkness. (No exit signs? Is that even legal?) We see a ghostly figure float by. We hear spirits signaling their presence by pressing buzzers. And then the seance is cut short as Houdini turns on the lights and proceeds to explain how each effect was created: no spirits here.

By the time we get to the climactic seance. led by then-famous medium Mina (Margery) Crandon, we have heard many letters from Houdini to his wife, seen debates between Houdini and Doyle, and gotten a peek behind the scenes at the Crandons, all presented badly, with missing information, unsuccessful overlapping of dialogue, and a generally boring sloppiness.

[spoilers below]

But as the climactic seance is set up, the show becomes interesting. Does Mina believe in her powers? Does she actually have powers? Will she be trapped--or freed--by the wooden box Houdini developed to make trickery impossible?

Mina sits in the box. Houdini and his assistant fasten her in, with the satisfying clinks and thunks of large locks being put in place and snapped shut. Everyone present, including Doyle and Mina's husband, holds hands, and . . .

The scene is interrupted. Suddenly Doyle is talking to the medium/magician from the play's opening. There's some more overlapping dialogue, some more faux intensity, some more pointless arguing. But what happened to the seance?

In the midst of the noise, Mina seems to speak to Houdini in the code that he and his mother had established before her death. Then Mina and Houdini speak quietly in Hungarian. Perhaps Mina is the real thing?

But then Houdini is calling the seance another fake. Is he denying what happened? Was it a fantasy? Whose?

Does anyone care?

[end of spoilers]

Writer Sharp does herself no favors by directing her script. An objective director might recognize and solve the show's many problems, but Sharp is unable to rise above the play's murk. Another director might also lead the cast to better performances; as it stands, George Demas as Houdini, Spencer Aste as Doyle, and Brian Barnhart as Mr. Crandon are limited to one emotion, one tone of voice, and one facial expression each. On the other hand, Lynn Mancinelli as Mina brings an impressive depth and believability to her performance.

Nothing on Earth takes dramatic gold and spins it into straw.

(first row, press ticket)

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