Experiencing The Last Days Of Harry Houdini In A Graphic Novel Come To Life

by Hannah Means Shannon

If you’re a comics reader, you may know the name Cynthia Von Buhler from her graphic novel with Amanda Palmer, Evelyn, Evelyn, or from her recent single issue series now collected in hardback edition, Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini published by Hard Case Crime, a division of Titan Comics. If you’re someone from the New York region, you might also know her name from multiple live events that she’s staged at various locations in and around New York for a number of years, weaving storytelling into immersive theater experiences to delight and intrigue audiences in association with the Speakeasy Dollhouse.

Von Buhler’s original narrative brought to life at the Speakeasy Dollhouse concerned the murder of her ancestor during the Prohibition era and was staged in an authentic speakeasy location. Her newest venture is bringing her most recent narrative in comics, Minky Woodcock, to life as an immersive theater event, for audiences to experience the last days of Harry Houdini and investigator Minky Woodcock’s role as she is drawn into the drama surrounding the famous performer. The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini has been running for about a month, and will conclude on November 10th, 2018, so there’s still time to take part in what I can only recommend as a truly haunting experience. Appropriate since Houdini’s death fatefully occurred on October 31st, and Von Buhler is intentionally presenting the event during the Halloween season.

The graphic novel story from which the immersive play arises follows an irrepressible young woman who sets out to investigate Harry Houdini on behalf of Houdini’s wife, only to find herself drawn into conflict involving a spiritualist conspiracy against Houdini, a feud between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini, and Houdini’s own philandering. This barebones description does little to convey the charming and carefully wrought comic art of the book, nor the tremendous energy of the performers who bring the story to life for this event.

Von Buhler has also become expert at crafting interactive narratives where audience member “guests” follow certain characters and threads of story as they are being acted out, and in The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini, the plot incorporates a full stage area for Houdini’s performances, further blurring the line between performance then and performance now. When I attended the event on October 24th, also the occasion of Von Buhler’s birthday, I was a “friend of Minky’s”, and drafted into the role of a private investigator, following Minky’s perspective through the story in much the same way that readers follow her exploits in the graphic novel.

The night started off at the Theater at 80 St. Mark’s Place, and moved between several rooms in adjoining buildings, including a speakeasy, a theater space, a hotel room, a seance room, and a nurse’s infirmary.

At the speakeasy bar, guests drank from a list that included several different strains of absinthe and encountered a nautical theme.

In an antechamber to the theater area, drama not only played out, but live music entertained the guests.

But the story really got going in Minky’s office where she took phone calls, opened letters, and laid out some of the Houdini plot for us, even fielding a visit from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

 

One of the themes for the evening was definitely “spectacle” and we experienced a fully staged seance by a famous spiritualist communicating with her deceased brother on the “other side” and divining a plot of aggressive parties to silence spiritualist activities. Houdini was implicated in this role since he had been curious about the afterlife but had since become a vocal skeptic.

Not long afterwards, Minky’s services were engaged by Houdini’s wife, Bess, hoping to gain some insight into his infidelities. Minky stepped into the role with alacrity, perhaps curious about the great performer.

This led to a stage act where Minky was obliged to take part despite rising tensions.

Avoiding spoilers for the night’s events for those who wish to attend, there were some high-stakes moments with an actual water tank escape trick, and the plot only heated up from there.     

As private investigators, we caught wind of a particularly sinister nurse who might have some plans against Houdini, particularly since she was on hand to assist if he should have any medical distress during his shows. Her instruments looked more than a little threatening.

But as for Minky Woodcock and Mr. Houdini—well, there was definitely some mutual interest clouding Minky’s investigations.

Until things took a turn for the even more dramatic and Minky found herself fighting for her life. And enacting a bold plan to pose as a spiritualist and gain more information.

Minky took her new–quite nude–role in stride and played the part beautifully.

But more sinister elements were already at work. After challenging some frat boys to punch him in the gut several times, Houdini appeared a little worse for wear. And then we received the news of his shocking, sudden death.

Minky, still caught up in the investigation, wasn’t about to let things slide under such suspicious circumstances, but Houdini’s bride had strange requests to make–that his death not be investigated in order to allow for a bigger insurance payout. This didn’t sit well with Minky, who felt foul play had been at work.

In a final seance, Houdini’s wife attempted to contact him on the other side, with mixed results.

What lay in the cards for Minky? Well, her father’s investigation business turned up a new lead on a new case and pulled her away–into a story we can only hope will be a sequel in both comics and performance from Von Buhler in coming months.    

We raised a ceremoniously prepared glass of absinthe to the great Houdini, his untimely death, and the spirit of an investigator who claimed to be “afraid of nothing” and went a long way toward proving it during the course of the night.

Both the graphic novel, and the theater experience come highly recommended, as well as Cynthia Von Buhler’s past and no doubt future work, all designed to draw readers and audiences into a world in a “capsule” like experience that’s not only thoroughly convincing, but moving in its beauty and in the humanist and feminist ideas that weave their way into the storytelling.

The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini will run until November 10th.

Performers at The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini included:

Pearls Daily (Minky Woodcock)
Vincent Cinque (Harry Houdini)

Robyn Adele Anderson (Bess Houdini)
Lord Kat (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)
 Luka Fric (Bennie Woodcock)
E. James Ford (J. Gordon Whitehead)
Delysia La Chatte (Nurse La Chatte)
Veronica Varlow (Margery of Boston)
Rolls Andre (Dr. Kretzka)
Ryan Salvato (Sam Smiley)
Celeste Hudson (Lady Marler)
Mat Leonard (Jim Collins)
Tess Richie (Lady Doyle)
Tony Noto (Bernard Ernst Esquire)
Will Davis (Jack Price)
Jesse Long/Gretchen Knapp (Cop)
Anna Stefanic (Pianist, Bellhop Usher)
Cliff Fuller (Butler)
Sidney Morss (Madame Marcia)
Cynthia von Buhler (Stunt Double)

Production Members included:

Cynthia von Buhler (Producer, Writer, Art Director, Set Designer, Music Director, Puppet Designer)
PJ Mead (Co-Producer and Business Manager)​
Vincent Cinque (Director and Co-Producer)
Robyn Skye (Production Stage Manager)
Jon Bremner (Production Designer)
Delysia La Chatte (Choreographer)
Anna Michael (Fight Choreographer)
Alex Moore (Lighting/Sound Board Programmer and Operator)
Elizabeth Spindler (Assistant Stage Manager)
Macie Barnes (Head Production Assistant)
Wren Mitchell, Savannah Herms, Elianys Sanchez (Production Assistants)
Roberto Garcia and Cornelius Flynn (Set Construction)
Richard Sherry (Water Torture Chamber Builder)

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