The last time Miami audiences saw Dennis Watkins, he was hanging upside down in a Chinese Water Torture Cell.
The actor and magician was playing the legendary escape artist in Death and Harry Houdini, a House Theatre of Chicago production at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater. At each performance Watkins had about three minutes to extricate himself from what could have become a watery grave. And he always did.
We know this because Watkins is back along with artistic director Nathan Allen and five other cast members for the fifth House production in the Arsht Center’s Theater Up Close series. This time, Watkins is the star and playwright (Allen wrote Death and Harry Houdini). Opening Friday after a pair of previews, The Magnificents is about a traveling tent show — part circus, part magic show — in Depression-era Texas.
The play is a tribute to his late grandfather Ed Watkins, who ran a Dallas magic shop for 30 years and taught the young Dennis the art that would become his passion.
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“There was no traveling tent show in his life,” says Watkins, who looks more thoughtful hipster than Houdini as he talks about the man who inspired his play. “I tried to work in his spirit, ethos, imagination and craft. Those things are infused in it.”
This is the third time Watkins has played Magnificent, a magician he describes as being “much older than he appears. Ancient. A conjuror of unknown origin.” The play was first produced by the House in Chicago in 2007, then again in 2013. Each time it has evolved, and that’s true of the Miami version too.
“This is a fairy-tale version of his grandfather’s story,” says director Allen. “It’s full of symbols and semiotics that relate to his grandfather. But they’re subterranean. You don’t see it on the surface.”
The Magnificents is a play about family, not the family we acquire by birth but the family we select. The House, Allen says, is similar: “We see ourselves as a family, the group of people we choose to spend our lives with.”
The show’s family is led by Magnificent, who is clearly not well. He travels from town to town with his wife Rosie, a clown named Chase, an aerialist called Honeydew and a strong man named Harley. A silent, sneaky kid called The Boy shows up and is taken into the fold, over Magnificent’s objections.
The play involves all sorts of magic, including card tricks, making things disappear, conjuring a live rabbit and a canary. There’s interaction with a few audience members during the tent show sequences, as well as behind-the-scenes drama involving the Boy, who begins learning Magnificent’s tricks.
Besides Watkins, Michael E. Smith (he plays Chase) and Lucy Carapetyan (she’s Honeydew) have done the show before. Chris Mathews, Allen’s play-writing collaborator on the House’s Hammer Trinity (a trilogy currently running in Chicago that will play the Arsht next season), is portraying The Boy for the first time. Adeoye (the actor uses the one-word name) is playing Harley and will return to the Arsht this summer as the Cheshire Cat in Lookingglass Alice, a production from Chicago’s Lookingglass Theatre. Brenda Arellano, a member of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, will play Rosie — entirely in Spanish.
Arellano, born to Mexican parents in Los Angeles, grew up in Oregon and has worked in Chicago since 2006. She translated all of Rosie’s lines — originally, the character spoke in a kind of gibberish, then in heavily accented English — and says that “Spanish lights up my brain in different ways.”
She adds, “I coo at Dennis in Spanish, and you see that they have an understanding, like many couples who can communicate non-verbally. I think it will be clear.”
Carapetyan, who does aerial tricks on a silk sling, sees Honeydew as a tough gal “who would probably be dancing for money if she’d not been saved by Magnificent. She has an edge to her. But she’s very committed to this life and to the family. … She’s rough but also has a great tenderness.”
Adeoye, who was born in Nigeria and grew up in Guam, describes Harley as “an outlier who probably had trouble with the law before Magnificent brought him into the family. … The family is a band of misfits who found each other. It does feel similar to a modern theater family. Most of us have parents who said we should do something else.”
Smith, the only cast member besides Watkins to be in all three versions of The Magnificents, has known Allen since the two were flatmates while studying at the British American Drama Academy in London. He joined the House in 2002 and, after teaching high school drama for seven years, wants to help grow the company’s educational programming.
“Nate is a wonderful director. He has this incredible eye for story. There are these very large moments, with such spectacle, and then these smaller moments that have such an impact,” Smith says.
At 35, Mathews is playing a character he describes as “a typical Dickensian tramp. He’s a hobo kid, probably an orphan, who has the emotional maturity of a 13- or 14-year-old, along with street wisdom.” The Boy has to do magic tricks, and Matthews took his lessons from Watkins seriously.
“Learning magic is difficult. It’s sacred. If you screw up, you let the audience see how it’s done. It involves secrecy and deception. There’s pressure in preserving the art of it,” he says.
The Allen-Mathews Hammer Trinity — The Iron Stag King, The Crownless King and The Excelsior King, plays that run a total of nine hours including intermissions and a dinner break — has won raves in Chicago and is, in Allen’s estimation, the culmination of everything the House artists have learned over 14 years of collaborating.
Describing their process, Mathews says, “Nathan is an idea monster. He’s so prolific, such an engine of creativity. Sometimes, it’s about him undoing a satchel of ideas and dumping all this stuff on the table. I work to put the ideas into place and carve them out. In the early stages, it’s never about, ‘Well, that doesn’t work.’ We fold in as many ideas as possible.”
Arellano, a self-described House “newbie,” has seen the company’s productions in Chicago and cites the theater’s truth-in-advertising slogan: “Performing Amazing Feats of Storytelling Since 2001.”
“It’s definitely heightened theater. It’s not talking heads,” she says. “It’s purely stage magic. In every show, I have a big gasp when something unexpected happens. … This is about magic, wonder, the suspension of disbelief. When I see the magic, I just go, ‘Oooh.’ I feel like a kid.”
If you go
What: ‘The Magnificents’ by Dennis Watkins.
Where: House Theatre of Chicago production in the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami.
When: Previews 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, opens 7:30 p.m. Friday; regular performances 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, through May 3 (additional show 3 p.m. Saturday).
Info: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter .org.