The sequential art of comics is by design a participatory experience, one that co-creates meaning between panel and reader. Our minds fill in the action between panels, imbuing them with movement, voice-overs, and emotion that complete the animation begun within the still frames of the artist and script of the writer. It seems a natural fit, then, for a comic book to become a movie. A comic book becoming theater, however, happens less frequently but is no less harmonious than the big screen adventures of the last twenty odd years. Comic tales have become such consistent mainstream Hollywood successes that there remains few major properties that have yet to be optioned for their film rights.
This hasn’t escaped the notice of Cynthia Von Buhler, the dynamo behind headline-making immersive theater efforts such as The Illuminati Ball, Speakeasy Dollhouse, and Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic. An artist whose work covers a broad spectrum of media, including visual art, music, performance art and children’s books, von Buhler appears to have written her comic series Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini with the stage in mind. It makes sense, considering her background, but as someone who has been following her work on this particular book from Titan Comic’s Hard Case Crime imprint for some time, it was something of an experience to see the panels truly come to life all-around me in von Buhler’s stage production.
Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini the immersive theater experience begins in different places for different audience members. Unlike Sleep No More, perhaps the most well-known immersive theater production running in New York, Minky Woodcock doesn’t leave you to wander its stages alone. Depending on which ticket you purchase, you are paired with one of the characters from comic-turned-play, whose movements you follow for the duration of the show. Just over two hours long, with several intermissions that allow the audience to chat with other members of their group and interact with characters aside from their designated chaperone, Minky Woodcock provides a participatory experience unlike most immersive theater one experiences in New York.
I was on the Harry Houdini (Vincent Cinque) track for my performance of Minky Woodcock, which is the higher of the two ticket pricing levels available. This allows you to see all of Harry Houdini’s scenes, including his death which was exclusive enough that our group crowded into the small operation room to witness it, and characters had to say “excuse me” to navigate around us so they might minister to the dying magician. The intimacy was unnerving, as we all know how this story ends: Houdini can’t survive. But you can’t help rooting for him to somehow prevail as his agonized wife (initially portrayed by Robyn Adele Anderson, now featuring Tess Richie) begs him not to leave her. One of the other group members I traveled with tried to soothe Mrs. Houdini after Harry expired, saying, “there’s nothing more you could’ve done.”
The entire show is like that moment: energetic actors interacting with their audiences as they lead their groups in and around the many different settings of the play. These include a large theater, which actually hosted vaudeville productions during prohibition, a small bar, an operating room, a hotel room and lobby, as well as scenes performed in the connecting hallways between these settings. It’s incredibly ambitious, but the moment the curtain rises on the actual water torture chamber, that will hold three separate actors submerging themselves before the show ends, it becomes abundantly clear the level of work that has gone into bringing these panels to theatrical life. I was thrilled to watch, yet terrified for the well-being of, the actors perform within the chamber.
I was charmed by Minky (Pearls Daily) and the way she performed entire comedic scenes while completely naked, as the sight of her moved from being titillating to relaxed and natural. Who doesn’t appreciate a girl detective who can shift from hard-boiled noir to bunny sidekicks and burlesque with a change of expression? Harry himself is a wonder: his passion and drive were connected to every movement of his body, and the force of his personality leads to an immediate suspension of disbelief: you feel as if you are actually in the company of the brilliant and hot-headed illusionist.
With these two leads in the driver’s seat, one is never bored. When Harry was dragged away from leading our group to perform illusions, or disappear for secret liaisons , his formidable assistant Jim Collins (Mat Leonard) gamely led us along, and his considerable improvisations remarkably never hit a false note.
Comedic relief comes in the form of several college students, Sam Smiley (Ryan Salvato) and Jack Price (Will Davis) who are unabashed fanboys of Mr. Houdini, as well as Bernard Ernst Esquire (Tony Noto) the fast-talking lawyer of Mrs. Houdini, who wanders the proceedings with a stuffed parrot in tow and advises the new widow on her options for legal remedy in the wake of Harry’s passing. All three characters articulated moments of genuine surprise and humor amidst the murder and drama.
Some of the best beats in the production are totally unscripted. The bar that adjoins the theater is open for business to the public during the show, which leads to interactions such as one I witnessed between a random bar patron and Minky, who was sitting outside the large glass window that looks into the bar, talking with Bess Houdini at one point. Minky had caught the eye of a rather intoxicated gentleman within the bar, who was knocking on the window and trying to offer the lady detective a drink. Minky gestured to him, waving the man away sweetly before turning her back on him and looking towards her audience with an exasperated air.
The best comics are those which come alive effortlessly, those that strongly suggest their movements, feelings, and tone so that the reader hardly notices they are animating static images and text within their own minds. Minky Woodcock as a play gives much the same feeling as those comics do, but allows you to truly sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.
I’ve included some stills from the performance next to the comic panels they’re drawn from to below. Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini still has tickets available for it’s two remaining shows tonight and tomorrow. If you missed Minky this time, you’ll be happy to know that she’s returning to comics in 2019 with They Die Fast on Broadway, based on her Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic stage show. The indefatigable von Buhler is also taking on a comic adaption of her Illuminati Ball that same year.
Please note: some images are not safe for work.
Minky Woodcock: The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini plays at Theatre 80, 80 St. Marks Place, Manhattan, NY 10003. Shows run from 7 to 930pm.