As the great Houdini, actor and magician Dennis Watkins performed death-defying magic tricks, including the infamous Water Torture Cell escape. Now, as the kindly Magnificent, Watkins will take on a demanding disappearing act.
“The Magnificents” is a show that follows Magnificent, an elderly magician, and his traveling magic show beneath a big top tent in Texas in 1933. For generations, the family has created its own magical world to share with the audience. As the show begins, Magnificent is dying, and his love of magic and mystery is being stripped away with his health. What follows is his journey to pass on the craft from one magician to another through a legacy filled with magic, mystery and hope.
Watkins was last in Miami in 2012 for his performance in “Death and Harry Houdini” by The House Theatre of Chicago. The company will present “The Magnificents” Friday at the Adrienne Arsht Center, complete with acrobatics, slight of hand and grand, onstage magic tricks.
The play is based off Watkins’ personal experience as a third-generation magician. He began writing the play in 2006 as an homage to his grandfather who owned a magic shop in Texas for almost 30 years and taught the craft to his grandson.
His grandfather passed away at 83 years old, surrounded by family and with his wife holding his hand. Watkins was unable to be there, which left him to imagine what the scene was like.
“In my imagination, his death turned into a really beautiful, lovely magic trick where he lay down, they stretched a sheet across him and he floated up in the air and just disappeared, which became the theme that inspired the whole play,” he said.
Watkins studied theater in Chicago. There, he joined with director Nathan Allen to found The House Theatre of Chicago.
Allen encouraged Watkins to combine his art forms and use magic to create meaningful stories, a balance he tried to embody in “The Magnificents.”
“The most challenging was … letting magic carry the story and hoping that we were able to take the audience with us through every step of that journey and not let them get lost in how does the thing work, but to live in the moment of the story and the moment of the magic,” Watkins said.
As a magician with a lifetime of experiences, Watkins added expertise with his tricks, but beyond that, he brought a genuine love and reverence for the art form.
“I would imagine that someone who does what I do day-in and day-out as a means of passion and a means of livelihood also brings a passion, also brings a much deeper understanding of the art and the craft, not only how we create magic for the audience, but why we create magic for audiences,” he said.
Watkins’ vast vocabulary and understanding of tricks allowed Allen the flexibility to play around with new ideas for original tricks.
“He challenges you to imagine harder, to really put the impossible on stage because that’s his art form,” Allen said.
Allen had his share of challenging Watkins in turn when it came to the subject matter. In directing the show, Allen wanted to give Watkins all the support he needed to tell this personal story.
“I think I’ve been a foil to him in trying to encourage him to go deeper and go more personal and dig in a little further with some of the ideas that are present in the play and make them more about himself and his grandfather,” Allen said.
The love of magic that his grandfather taught him is what captured Watkins at age 7, and he hopes this same child-like joy and wonder will extend to audiences.
“I hope … they’re able to surrender a little bit and enjoy the wonder and enjoy the surprise that comes with each and every little magical moment and let themselves get wrapped up in that for a very short while before they have to go back to real life,” he said.
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).
Cost: Tickets are $50. Student discounts are available for $20 through the Arsht U Tix program.
Featured photo courtesy Jack Lawrence Mayer.