Harry Houdini is arguably the most famous magician of all time, but the circumstances around his death remain suspiciously murky. Did he truly die suddenly of appendicitis, or were there more malevolent forces afoot? Cynthia von Buhler’s The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini combines murder mystery, film noir, and comic book genres to create a genuinely fun immersive theater experience wherein audiences can explore the mysteries surrounding Houdini’s death.
Though von Buhler is well known for her exceedingly successful immersive murder-mystery, Speakeasy Dollhouse, she has also worked widely in a variety of other art forms such as performance art, music and illustration. Indeed, von Buhler’s productions often utilize her multidimensional talents, and her casting commonly draws from different communities of artists, dancers, singers and actors. It is not entirely surprising, then, that The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini incorporates burlesque, song, and stunt work, and is based on von Buhler’s original and beautifully illustrated graphic novel of the same name. Indeed, many of the performances in the production resemble comic book characters come to life: the seductive, raven-haired Lady Margery of Boston (played by Veronica Varlow) and the conniving yet sultry Nurse La Chatte (played by burlesque darling Delysia La Chatte) are just a few of the caricatures at play. These actresses’ speech patterns and exaggerated facial expressions give the look and feel of comic book villains, which in turn creates a delightfully campy atmosphere.
Minky Woodcock, on the other hand, is quite a multifaceted character; she is the production’s spunky and whip-smart female protagonist. Left on her own to manage her father’s detective business, Minky decides to take on the case of Harry Houdini herself, which leads her (and her audience) on the wild adventures that ensue. Burlesque starlette Pearls Daily does this role great justice with plenty of dynamism and skill; indeed, it is hard to imagine a better fit for it, as Daily demonstrates masterful vocal quality, dance skills, and comic timing—all delivered with unwavering energy from curtain up to curtain down. Her vocal command and physical humor as she performs a phony séance disguised as Lady Margery, for example, is a moment of sheer theatrical comic bliss.
Von Buhler, along with production designer Jon Bremner and coproducer/director Vincent Cinque (who also plays Houdini) have designed Houdini to occur on several different tracks that audience members follow according to the “passports” they receive upon arrival. Each track follows a different character and plays out independently in several different performance spaces, ranging from a theater to a speakeasy-type bar to a townhouse. Though some of the spaces are rather small, von Buhler’s original set and lighting design manage to create palpably mysterious, interactive, and playful space.
As the production’s website indicates (and as its cast of burlesque performers might suggest), The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini incorporates a remarkable amount of (particularly female) nudity, even for an Off-Off-Broadway crowd. In some moments, especially the more intimate scenes, when the actors are mere inches away from audience members, this choice feels gratuitous. However, there are other moments (such as Minky’s posing nude for a portrait while multi-tasking her various sleuthing endeavors) when the nudity becomes almost de-sexualized to humorous effect. In this scene, Minky is joined by her colorful and witty sibling, Bennie Woodcock, who is played by Luka Fric with much aplomb. Fric interacts with a completely naked Daily as if it is just another day in the Woodcock family business.
Another fair warning audiences should note is that there is no bag check at the venue, and the production requires participants to do significant walking, especially up and down stairs. Participants should plan accordingly, pack light, and wear comfortable shoes. Overall, for audience members who enjoy participatory theater as well as burlesque stylings, The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini offers a sexy night of magic and mystery with a supremely talented cast of performers.
The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini plays through Nov. 10 at Theatre 80 (80 St. Marks Place, Manhattan). Performances are at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. All full-price tickets include a copy of the hardcover graphic novel signed by the director/author/illustrator Cynthia von Buhler. For tickets and information, visit minkywoodcock.com.