views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Houdini: The Art of Escape
Etcetera Theatre
28th August 2015


Publicity image for Houdini

Photography provided by The Camden Fringe

Some might argue that the art of escapology died a long time ago when Harry Houdini himself did, but his name lingers so strongly that it remains a synonym for locked-room murders and an inspiration for hamsters across the globe. Escapology somewhat oxymoronically, remains in its coffin in this production that uses mime to tell the life history of the man who broke into show business by breaking out of it.

For me, mime can be a risky choice, especially when blended with dance. However, this fusion of styles works surprisingly well for Felipe Cabezas, the writer and sole performer behind Houdini: The Art of Escape. This relies partly on the seance environment, with recordings of spoken words to summon the escapologist's spirit, as well as literal (but clever) signposts of both the setting and period. These small and subtle cues sometimes tell us entire stories on their own, and it's this carefully-considered attention which makes the whole piece so enchanting. Houdini: The Art of Escape follows the illusionist's lowly beginnings in Hungary, his attempt to make his fortune in America, working in the circus, finding love, his unfortunate death... and finally, takes us back to the seance.

Cabezas naturally floats through the changes of character, much more fluidly than you might have expected from his frame. His varied use of mime styles is a revelation - this ranges from whole body acting to very subtle facial expressions to - and this is a new one on me - finger mime flirtation and what I am going to very carefully not call hand-porn. Definitely not. A limited selection of props are used sparingly, only called on when a mimed version just wouldn't work, such as Death (a recurring character) selecting souls for the seance. Arguably a few more scenes could have been clearer in meaning. It took me a while to work some of them out, but of course a lot of detail eludes telling through mime.

Lying on top of all of this is a deeply intelligent set of music created by Mara Lepore that underlines each of our central character's emotions. This includes some haunting interpretations of the Maple Leaf Rag and other classics, but also some fresh compositions. The timings with the music have evidently been meticulously rehearsed, as Cabezas barely misses a beat. Berty Tovías' simple yet effective lighting also helps establish the shift in tones.

There's not really much to criticise about Houdini: The Art of Escape. There are a few unpolished over-fervent moments and some where the significance could be made more immediately obvious, however this doesn't detract from what is a wonderfully entertaining 60 minutes. An enjoyable escape from the norm.

Houdini opened on 25th August and runs until 30th August 2015 at the Etcetera Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe.

Nearest tube station: Camden Town (Northern)

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