We’re big fans of Cynthia von Buhler and her Speakeasy Dollhouse productions; and so naturally jumped at the chance to catch her latest immersive show, “The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini.” Based on the noir comic book series and graphic novel exploring the death of the famed illusionist, the performance unfolded at the historic Theater 80 and adjoining speakeasy and townhouse on St. Mark’s Place in NYC’s East Village. Buhler has geniusly transformed the space into a Prohibition-era time capsule, with whimsical touches like an actual live rabbit that audience members got to pet at the start of the show.
“The ’20s were a time when freedom roared, especially for women,” she says, “They chose to keep their war-time jobs, drank booze, bobbed their hair, threw away their corsets, and finally won the right to vote. The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini revels in this era of loosening gender roles and free-flowing, yet illegal liquor – and Minky Woodcock transports audiences into a time capsule where they can live fully in her world.”
Handed our passports and assigned to a lead character (the luck would have it, we got Houdini himself), we explored the events leading up to the world-renowned magician’s mysterious death on Halloween. The charming lothario Houdini is convincingly played by Vincent Cinque (the star of The Illuminati Ball and Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic – the latter of which we also loved in its staging off Times Square a few years back). Woodcock is the sexiest private eye we’ve ever seen, as she unravels Houdini’s untimely death.
Secrets are uncovered, as there are nine and counting ways to experience the show itself – which we love about all of Buhler’s productions. The clever Minky is played by Pearls Daily (burlesque star and actress who recently appeared on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel) as she sleuths through the final days of great illusionist. Woodcock’s investigation has her crossing paths with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – who believes Houdini is not merely a magician but has supernatural powers – and with Bess Houdini, who (rightfully) suspects her husband is cheating on her.
Experiencing the event through Houdini’s point of view, we delightfully found ourselves assisting the magician’s rehearsal backstage, sipping absinthe in a speakeasy, and spying on his affair in a hotel room. In a macabre twist, we witnessed an attempted murder, attended a séance, visited Houdini in his hospital room, and even viewed his body in the morgue; there is even a spine tingling recreation of Houdini’s famous water torture chamber. (It should also be noted that the William Barnacle Tavern at Theater 80 was formerly Scheib’s Place, a speakeasy where the New York City Council drank during Prohibition.)
With incredible magic tricks and authentic recreations of spiritualist demonstrations such as tarot readings and spirit photography, Buhler’s production offers up a meticulously detailed slice of history. Audience members are encouraged to come back to follow other key players and see alternate facets of what actually led to Houdini’s fateful death.
Evidence is revealed…but the truth is left up to the theatergoer to decide.