Harry Houdini mastered the media and promoted himself with finesse, but his genius always lay in manipulating the tangible properties of magic. After all, this was a man who could escape from a locked trunk underwater. Late in his life Houdini crusaded vigorously against anyone who practiced other forms of magic, denouncing psychic mediums and even testifying before a 1926 congressional subcommittee on the evils of fortune-telling.
Listen Houdini (Axis Company) examines this little-remembered chapter of the magician’s life through a thick psychoanalytic lens. The ensemble-devised piece centers on Houdini’s frequent debates with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a spiritualist who introduced his skeptical friend to dozens of psychics. In the penultimate sequence, the duo encounters Margery Crandon, a reluctant psychic pressured by her husband to capture Scientific American‘s prize for perfect medium. Crandon must deliver proof positive by channeling Houdini’s late mother, whose death fuels the performer’s disbelief and rage. As Crandon “ventures forth” into spookland, Houdini’s dogmatism wears down, revealing an isolated soul terrified of confronting his tremendous loss.
Under Randy Sharp’s direction, the production blends epistolary monologues with Crossfire debating rhythms and often clunky expositional dialogue. Scenes tend to meander—perhaps an unfortunate by-product of collective creation. This problem is widened by a stylistic decision to have characters fumble for words (to articulate the inexplicable). In debates, the sides have to be strongly delineated, so the committed Axis company largely sticks to caricature. Only the flinty Robert Cucuzza (as Houdini) finds enough rabid intensity to give larger stakes to these clashing viewpoints.
Listen Houdini works best in the climactic séance scene, when it finally turns from plodding historical biography to conjure—via soundscapes and conscientious ensemble work—those supernatural forces Houdini fears. Crandon, restrained in a special packing crate from the neck down (to ensure no trickery), calls out to other worlds as pale blue lights cast an eerie glow. Houdini’s apprehensions at last make some dramatic sense when there’s evidence (rather than just talk) of magic onstage. Like the impresario himself, we suddenly find ourselves listening more closely in hopes of discovering new frequencies.