by Joan Kane · March 15, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #60 Joan Kane comments on Nothing on Earth In the early 20th century Harry Houdini was an internationally famous magician and well known for his acts of escape from various imprisonments. In the 1920s he turned his energies toward debunking psychics and mediums. Communicating with the dead was a very fashionable topic at the time and “Mediums” were popular with people who fervently wanted to believe in Spiritualism. Houdini's knowledge of magic allowed him to expose those who had successfully deceived many scientists and academics. He was a member of a committee from Scientific American Magazine that, in 1922, offered a cash prize to any medium who could successfully demonstrate supernatural abilities. These activities cost Houdini the friendship of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes stories, who was a firm believer in Spiritualism during his later years. Doyle refused to believe any of Houdini's exposés. Doyle came to believe that Houdini was a powerful spiritualist medium, and had performed many of his stunts by means of paranormal abilities. The prize was never collected. Possibly the most famous medium whom Houdini debunked was Mina Crandon. These are the historical events that are the basis for Nothing on Earth Can Hold Houdini.
The production at Axis Company is written and directed by Randall Sharp. This is an interesting topic but at times the story was hard to follow with many repetitions, overlapping conversations and unclear asides. The direction occasionally seemed off kilter, especially the frequently used idea of the performers playing to an invisible audience up stage. I lost the thread of things when everyone on stage was facing directly away from me. The cast valiantly holds the evening together. George Demas was particularly good as the skeptical and firmly scientific Harry Houdini. Lynn Mancinelli was excellent as the Medium, Mina Crandon, even when she was locked into a box to prevent her from “cheating.” Spencer Aste as Arthur Conan Doyle was excellent and made me cry in the scene when he spoke with the spirit of his dead son. Brian Linden, David Crabb and Brian Barnhart created authentic, dynamic characters for this period drama.
At times the lighting was beautifully evocative of a gaslight era but at other times the back lights in a low ceiling theater shot right into my eyes in a way that distracted me from the story. The period costumes designed by Karl Ruckdeschel were stunning, especially the beaded gowns of Mina Crandon.