What goes through someone's mind when he or she is dangling by his or her ankles, trying to break free from a padlocked straitjacket or attempting to break out of chains while submerged in a tank of water?
Master escape artist Harry Houdini took the answer with him to the grave in 1926 along with the secrets to his most perplexing tricks. But in Houdini: Memories of a Conjurer, the latest piece of "chamber music theater" by CORE Ensemble, audiences will get at least one writer's version of the famous magician's thought process.
You'd think Houdini would have been meticulously pondering every move of his daring feats. However, according to Itamar Kubovy, who wrote the script for the show, Houdini was thinking about his mother. That's right. The voice-over story line for this avant-garde piece of musical theater is set in 1914 on the night Houdini returned to performing following the death of his beloved mother. So while a Houdini character performs magic on stage, a narrator lets the audience into the magician's head as he goes over his family's escape from anti-Semitism in Hungary, his troubled relationship with his unemployed rabbi father, his introduction to magic, his early vaudeville career, his big break, and his struggle to continue his career after his mother's death.
Behind the action and narration, Lake Worth-based CORE Ensemble -- an eclectic combination of percussion, piano, and cello -- plays an equally disparate selection of music, which ranges from a very somber Jewish cantorial piece to upbeat, fun period songs that might have been heard at an amusement park like Coney Island.
"Musically there's just a great deal of variety," according to ensemble founder and percussionist Michael Parola. "No one ever really knew what went on in [Houdini's] mind while he was doing all of these extraordinary things. This kind of mechanism of a voice-over allows that to take place, although it is fictional."
Formed in 1993, CORE Ensemble's unusual configuration (which now includes pianist Hugh Hinton and cellist Raphael Popper-Keizer) has earned it an international reputation for being on the cutting edge of chamber music. Out of necessity the trio plays only specially commissioned compositions. And for the last five years, its members have focused on the "chamber music theater" concept. With experience they have settled upon a format in which a solo performance artist provides the visuals to their music.
The 1998 piece Of Ebony and Embers -- Vignettes of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, featured nationally acclaimed actor Akin Babatunde reading the poetry of Harlem poets as the group played classical and jazz pieces by black composers. This time out the ensemble began the process of creating a new piece by deciding to work with composer Judith Shatin.
Shatin was casually brainstorming with writer Kubovy, a lifelong fan of Houdini, when he suggested the late magician as a subject. In a case of serendipity, Parola was driving through Lake Worth just after agreeing to the Houdini theme when he passed by the Klein Dance studio. He knew right then Houdini would be played by dancer-choreographer Demetrius Klein. The agile dancer's body, Parola figured, would be able to gracefully perform the required stunts -- escaping from ropes, chains, a straitjacket, and a locked water tank. Klein even choreographed accompanying dance moves, but he's not an actor, so South Florida theater favorite John Fionte was added to the cast to read the voice-overs.
"Houdini goes through his entire act at the same time reminiscing and wondering if he can resolve his feelings of desolation and abandonment and can he still be the person on the surface his public has come to expect," says Parola.
But he cautions: "This is not a magic show. It's a performance piece. The music is structured in the form of character pieces, so its inspiration is the action going on. The whole idea of chamber music theater is a wedding of different elements, music with narrative, and in this case dance movement."