Artist and director Cynthia von Buhler arrived at our appointment carrying a case containing her new pet rabbit Agatha. The cuddly, two-month-old rescue curled up in her lap and stayed put for the entire time we spoke.
Von Buhler is currently smoothing out the kinks for The Girl who Handcuffed Houdini, an immersive play that officially opens on October 5 at Theatre 80 St Marks. Based on von Buhler’s newly published graphic novel of the same name (now available from Titan Comics, with a sequel in the works), in which Minky Woodcock, a siren-like private investigator living in 1920s England, shadows illusionist Harry Houdini in what would turn out to be his final couple of weeks before his death on October 31, 1926. “Back then, spiritualism was massively popular. People believed it,” von Buhler told Bedford + Bowery. “Because so many people died young, the relatives wanted to talk to the other side but spiritualists were preying on them, and Houdini did not like that and he was trying to expose them.”
Von Buhler has been creating immersive mystery plays with her company Speakeasy Dollhouse since 2011, starting with the reconstruction of the circumstances surrounding the death of her grandfather in 1935, who owned speakeasies and was a bootlegger in the Bronx. “My mom was born the day he died,” she said, adding that nobody really wanted to talk about what happened.
This fascination with the investigation of her grandfather’s death led her to stage other mystery-themed shows, most of them set between the 1920s and 1930s. Ziegfeld Midnight Frolic investigated the death of starlet Olive Thomas, the first starlet to portray a “flapper,” while The Brothers Booth, which investigates Lincoln’s assassination, is set in 1919 and features ghosts. “I am kind of stuck [in the 20s-30s], for a reason. It resonates with me; it was a time when women became more free, they started cutting their hair. The fact that alcohol was illegal made it even naughtier,” she said, noting that her only non-1920s/30s show is her famed The Illuminati Ball, which recreated the debaucherous Surrealist Ball hosted by socialite Marie-Hélène de Rothschild in 1972. “I love things that are true but you can’t believe they’re true because they’re so bizarre.”
For her past shows, she had a predilection for historic sites in downtown Manhattan and North Brooklyn. Speakeasy Dollhouse, subsequently rechristened The Bloody Beginning, was staged at the Backroom on Norfolk Street; the city-based iteration of the The Illuminati Ball took place at The Weylin in South Williamsburg. Similarly, The Girl who Handcuffed Houdini takes place at an East Village townhouse on St. Marks place, which is perfect, considering the fact that it used to be a speakeasy. “I was originally going to do the show at another location which was owned by a Catholic church. They didn’t want to be associated with the nudity and sexuality of the book, which is ridiculous considering all the press surrounding pedophile priests,” von Buhler told us. “They led me on for half a month and then pulled the rug from under me.”
Ending up in the building that houses Theatre 80 proved to be a blessing, as she could overtake many of its rooms. For the occasion, the ground-floor William Barnacle Tavern serves absinthe-based cocktails such as the Houdini Noir, made with maple syrup, balsamic vinegar, absinthe and blueberries.
With its 199 seats, Theater 80 provides the perfect backdrop for Houdini’s tricks: The centerpiece of the show is, in fact, Houdini’s famed Chinese Water Torture Cell, a tank where Houdini could stay immersed upside-down, his feet restrained, for several minutes. “My hair is wet because I actually go in the tank,” said von Buhler, who plays a stunt double. She got a custom-made water tank from Richard Sherry, a famed Canadian magic and escape builder. A long consultation preceded any tricks and antics with the Chinese Water Torture Cell.
“My background is in naval engineering,” said production manager Robyn Sky. “The first thing I did was a call to a Navy Seal friend of mine to talk about apnea training—breathing exercises, sensory deprivation training.” Apparently the whole contraption is not as scary as it looks. For one thing, the water is warm, and von Buhler herself likens being in the tank to taking a bath–a soothing experience.
As for the upstairs rooms of the building, they were turned into hyperrealistic sets; we got to visit the opulent séance room, all decked in brocade-like burgundy tapestries, and decorated with hunting trophies wiping tears. “The set design is really important to me,” said von Buhler, who designed all the sets herself. “For an immersive show you have to feel like you’re in a place that’s old and has history.”
To add to the hyperlocal element, the characters’ physical appearances in the graphic novel The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini were inspired by real-life local performers, who actually play the characters they helped originate on paper in the live-action adaptation: Minky Woodcock is modeled after —and played by—actress, comedian and burlesque performer Pearls Daily, who is Miss Coney Island 2018; performer Delysia La Chatte both lent her appearance to the comic-book and live-action version of a mysterious “nurse”; singer and flapper Robyn Adele Anderson is Bess Houdini, Harry Houdini’s no-nonsensical wife, while witch Veronica Varlow plays the famous medium Margery of Boston, who was known in the 1920s for her sexualized spiritualistic antics. ”Ectoplasm would come out of her vagina!” said von Buhler, “She would pull her [dead] brother’s mysterious hand out of her vagina!”
But von Buhler didn’t choose Houdini as a subject because of her fascination with local history (he was buried in a poorly maintained gravesite in Glendale, Queens). Rather, it’s because of the imagery associated with him. “I’ve always loved magic, I love circus and magic and I think that Houdini was a fascinating character,” she said.
Why fascinating? “Houdini obviously had an obsession with being tied up and handcuffed,” she said. “I took a few liberties with that and added a little S&M innuendo to the storyline and book title.”
Despite her fascination with mysteries, circus, magic and the likes, though, von Buhler doesn’t believe in the occult. “I am a pragmatist.”
“The Girl Who Handcuffed Houdini” is now in previews; it opens October 5 at 78-80 St Marks Place, and runs through November 10 (get tickets here). The Graphic Novel of the same name is now available from Titan Comics.