The House Theatre of Chicago specializes in conjuring theatrical magic. So maybe it’s inevitable that the company has partnered not once but twice with actor-magician Dennis Watkins to create plays about magicians and their craft.
The House first brought Watkins to Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center in 2012 to play the legendary illusionist in Nathan Allen’s Death and Harry Houdini. Now Watkins is back in his own play, The Magnificents, a piece staged by House artistic director Allen, who has his own magic touch when it comes to creating engaging theater.
Inspired by Watkins’ late grandfather, a magic shop owner who got his grandson started on the road to dazzling trickery and illusion, The Magnificents centers on a small tent show traveling around Texas during the Depression. Each member of the tiny troupe has a specialty: Magnificent (Watkins) is the charming, commanding magician; his wife Rosie (Brenda Arellano), who speaks only Spanish, is his assistant; surly Harley (Adeoye) is the strong man; graceful Honeydew (Lucy Carapetyan) is the aerialist; and Chase (Michael E. Smith) dons a red nose to play the clown.
A lanky, silent character called The Boy (Chris Mathews) shows up, and after a kerfuffle involving a missing wedding ring, he’s invited to stick around by the sympathetic Rosie. A troubled kid who seems to have no family, The Boy is given a series of tests to see if he has the skills to join this makeshift family-by-choice.
The Magnificents flows seamlessly between the out-of-the-spotlight interactions among its characters and segments of the traveling show, several involving Watkins enlisting the help of audience volunteers.
On opening night, a beautiful little girl named Grace helped Magnificent make a handkerchief in a bottle “dance.” A guy named Javier lost, then miraculously recovered, his wedding ring. Abigail, a game but slightly embarrassed young woman, helped Watkins perform an elaborate narrative-linked card trick. Another guy provided a number that led to a fast-paced feat involving 16 numbers.
Watkins, who has his own magic show in Chicago, really is an amazing and charismatic magician. During the course of The Magnificents, he seems to turn a stuffed toy rabbit into a real one, makes a canary appear in a previously empty cage, undergoes “surgery” in which his body seems to be sliced into sections that get shoved apart and, as part of a finale that truly is grand, simply vanishes.
As entertaining as the magic is, its function in The Magnificents is to serve a deeper story, one involving the family’s dying patriarch and his legacy. Envy, love, trustworthiness, compassion, sanctuary and loss are folded into Watkins’ tale, which ranges emotionally from bright-and-shiny comedy to poignant sorrow.
For the House’s fifth appearance in the Arsht’s Theater Up Close series, the company’s creative team — set and lighting designer Lee Keenan, costume designer Melissa Torchia, sound designer Jeff Kelley, composer Kevin O’Donnell, choreographer Tommy Rapley, video design by Manual Cinema Studios — has created a deceptively simple, intimate world.
The little troupe performs on a stage that folds down from the side of its vintage truck, a stage complete with footlights and a “Magnificents” sign surrounded by tiny lights. A small screen sometimes descends to display videos of the characters’ dreams. A silk sling drops from the ceiling to cradle Honeydew as she performs feats that marry strength and sensuality. A tree “grows” oranges before our very eyes, including one very special piece of fruit. Though the play’s world looks old-fashioned, it’s actually high-tech.
Combining veterans from the two Chicago runs of The Magnificents with newcomers, the cast at the Arsht artfully navigates the physical and emotional demands of the piece.
Smith is the show’s comic sparkplug, but once Chase becomes worried about the future, he makes you feel the depth of his anxiety. Arellano, who translated Rosie’s dialogue into Spanish, has to communicate the essence of what she’s saying to non-Spanish speakers, but her clear delivery and expressive face make the device work. Adeoye makes Harley a tough muscle man who’s not about to have his gig usurped by a stranger. Carapetyan’s striking Honeydew shows The Boy the kind of empathetic encouragement Rosie once showed her. And Mathews, whose role is almost entirely wordless, speaks silent volumes both physically and emotionally.
The captivating Watkins, of course, is the performer who supplies most of the “ta da!” moments in The Magnificents. But he and his collaborators have crafted something that transcends those showy bits to achieve real heart. Just watch, near the ending, as Magnificent dances with Rosie to the sounds of music and a soft chorus of crickets, a big moon shining down upon them and their tender memories. Now that’s magic.
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: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday, through May 3 (additional show 3 p.m. April 11).
Information: 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.