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Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter

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"I…devoted…time and thought to this illusion…. it was…trickery. I devised it to show…what can be done along these lines…do not jump to the conclusion that… things you see are…‘supernatural,’ or the work of ‘spirits,’ just because you cannot explain them." -- Harry Houdini to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

It is the summer of 1922, and Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are investigating psychic mediums for the Scientific American committee. Their collegiality becomes challenged, however, when Conan Doyle advocates on behalf of an attractive and alluring psychic, claiming that she is the real deal. Houdini is dogged in his efforts to demonstrate that she is a fraud; that is, until she appears to connect with Houdini’s beloved mother from beyond the grave. Now Houdini must confront his own thinking about life-after-life.

That's the subject of Gene Franklin Smith's latest play, Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter, now in its world premiere at the Malibu Playhouse, through August 3. Cleverly directed with an eye on period specificity by Thomas James O'Leary (aided greatly by Claire Livingston's Roaring Twenties costumes and Erin Walley's credible scenic design), Flim Flam is a provocative exploration of spiritualism, mediumship, and hucksterism. What's more, the story is inspired by the experiences of these true-life characters.

In fact, Flim Flam is theater that acts as a time machine. It brings us back to the days after World War I but before the Great Depression, World War II and the inventions of cinema and flight. And though science and society are on the march in modernity, many people are fascinated by and  even fixated on the possibility that the human spirit lives after the body has ceased to exist. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (played convincingly and with great dignity by Peter Van Norden), having much respect and influence in the world as the novelist who conceived of Sherlock Holmes, is a leading figure in the quest to validate spiritualism.

Harry Houdini (an agile and remarkably believable Rick D. Wasserman), on the other hand, is a master magician and renowned escape artist who is a major celebrity and devoted debunker of the contention that anyone on earth can connect and communicate with the deceased. Houdini refers to all “magic” as trickery, illusion, and, in his words, flim flam. This, of course, creates an unfriendly divide between Conan Doyle and him.  

Nevertheless, when Houdini encounters Mina “Margery” Crandon (a sexy, versatile Sabra Malkinson) and her unctuous husband, Dr. Leroi Crandon (a delightfully snippy Cameron Mitchell, Jr.), he is at first put off by her crass and merciless “act” of contacting spirits. Then the inexplicable occurs. This medium is able to convince Houdini that his dead mother is present among them

With intelligence and dramatic momentum Flim Flam is a play that examines how open heartedness can lead to open mindedness. Does the spirit survive the body? Does the love we have for another connect us not only in life but also in the afterlife? Flim Flam doesn’t provide the answers as much as it poses the questions. But that’s enough. Flim Flam allows us to think about the issue and to consider our own experience while reflecting on our own situations.

Moreover, with a dedicated cast, which also includes the marvelous Gigi Bermingham as Lady Jean Conan Doyle and Melissa Kite as Bess Houdini, as well as an ample and appropriately lit stage (Leigh Allen) with wonderful acoustics (Greg Chun), and the terrific live piano accompaniment of Beverly Craveiro, Flim Flam is a show that all can enjoy about a topic that holds wide and intrigue and appeal.

Flim Flam: Houdini and the Hereafter continues at the Malibu Playhouse through August 3. The Playhouse is located at 29243 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu. Evening performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.  Matinees are Sundays at 3 p.m. For reservations call  (310) 960 - 7711. For online ticketing and further information visit www.malibuplayhouse.org. .

 

Spotlight

Laguna Playhouse Announces Ellen Richard as its Interim Executive Director

May 3, 2016…Laguna Beach, Calif…Laguna Playhouse Board of Directors announced today that, later this month, Ellen Richard will be joining Laguna Playhouse as its Interim Executive Director. The Playhouse announced late last year that it was undertaking a national search guided by Arts Consulting Group (ACG) for an Executive Director to succeed Karen Wood who had held this position for the past eight years.

Commenting on the appointment Joe Hanauer and Paul Singarella, Co-Chairmens of the Board of Directors, said “In the midst of our search we encountered this wonderful opportunity to engage Ellen while we continue to seek appropriate long-term leadership. To have found someone with the extraordinary qualifications that Ellen has is thrilling. She is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer at New York’s Roundabout Theatre Company where she was Managing Director. Ellen also has strong successes in supervising the construction of theatres in New York and also in San Francisco at the American Conservatory Theater, a rare and valuable skill set considering the contemplated major remodel and expansion of the Laguna Playhouse.” Laguna Playhouse Artistic Director Ann E. Wareham adds, “We are pleased and proud to have Ellen Richard, truly a rock-star in our field, join us as our interim Executive Director who will help guide the Playhouse during this transition.” Comments Ellen Richard, “I have quickly grown fond of Laguna Beach and the Playhouse. I embrace this extraordinary opportunity to join one of the country’s top regional theatres at this time in its remarkable 95-year history. I look forward to helping the Playhouse and working with their incredible Board of Trustees and Ann E. Wareham.”

ABOUT ELLEN RICHARD

Ellen Richard served as Executive Director of the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco from 2010 through 2015.  During her tenure, Ms. Richard negotiated a deal to buy the Strand Theater in tech corridor of Mid-Market San Francisco, helped raise the $34,000 million to renovate and operate it and steered the design and construction for the project which opened in May of 2015. The complex featured two performance spaces and has won multiple awards.  She opened the 50 seat Costume Shop Theater, a 49-seat “black box” venue used for the company’s Master of Fine Arts students and for shows by other local companies.  Ms. Richard was also credited with expanding the company’s educational efforts, coming up with programs like the San Francisco Semester, which brings undergraduate acting students to ACT from around the world, and Stage Coach, a community theater mobile unit that reaches into diverse neighborhoods

She was also Executive Director of The Second Stage Theatre in New York City. During her tenure at Second Stage, which began in 2006 (through 2009), she was responsible for the purchase contract of the Helen Hayes Theatre, growth in subscription income of 48 percent, and growth in individual giving of 75 percent, as well as conceptualization of a highly successful gala format and “Second Generation,” a giving program through which donors enable deserving New York City youth to experience live theater. Under Ms. Richard’s leadership, Second Stage provided the initial home for the Broadway productions Everyday Rapture, Next to Normal, and The Little Dog Laughed.

From 1983 to 2005, Ms. Richard enjoyed a rich and varied career with Roundabout Theatre Company. The Roundabout that Ms. Richard joined was a small nonprofit theater company in bankruptcy. By the time she departed as Managing Director, Roundabout had become one of the country’s largest and most successful theater companies of its kind, with net assets in excess of $67 million dollars. Ms. Richard is the recipient of six Tony Awards as producer, for Roundabout productions of Cabaret (1998), A View from the Bridge (1998), Side Man (1999), Nine (2003), Assassins (2004), and Glengarry Glen Ross (2005). As producer of more than 125 shows at Roundabout, she had direct supervision of all management and marketing functions. She created Roundabout’s “Theatre-PLUS” programs, which include singles, teachers, family, gay and lesbian, wine tasting, and the 7 p.m. “Early Curtain” series, all of which grew to represent more than 10 percent of Roundabout’s 40,000 subscribers.

As director of design and construction at Roundabout, Ms. Richard was responsible for more than $50 million of theater construction for 11 projects. She conceptualized the three permanent Roundabout stages — The Broadway venues of Studio 54 and the American Airlines Theatre, and the Off-Broadway venue The Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre She directed the location search for Cabaret and oversaw the creation of the production’s environmental Kit Kat Klub. Prior to her tenure at Roundabout, Ms. Richard served as business manager of Westport Country Playhouse, theater manager for Stamford Center for the Arts, and business manager for Atlas Scenic Studio. She began her career working as a stagehand, sound designer, and scenic artist assistant.