"Houdini is back. And she's a female." No, that's not the grammatically confusing tagline to some kinky drag magic show. It's how escape artist Alexanderia the Great was heralded at Boston's GreenFest 2010 this past Friday. Alexanderia (aka Donna Purnell) was there to perform her own version of Houdini's famous "milk can" escape, though she was quick to point out that she's the first person to ever attempt the stunt in full view of an audience. What's more, she professes to be one of only four professional stuntwomen in the world today.
A crowd of curious and slightly bewildered onlookers craned their necks towards the main stage at City Hall Plaza, eager to see what a middle-aged woman in a black Speedo planned to do with an armful of chains, a partially deflated kiddie pool, and a blue recycling bin (which seemed to be the only relevant nod to her participation in GreenFest). The answer: death-defying escape magic. Purnell, aided by her husband and two members of the audience, would be submerged in the water-filled recycling can. Her hands would be chained together and thrust upwards through two holes in the lid, which in turn was chained and padlocked shut. Then, we'd all sit back and watch her try not to die.
A nerve-wracking proposition, to be sure, as Purnell admitted when I caught up with her a couple of hours before the big stunt. The Medway resident (currently a manager of a Bellingham Work Out World gym) has been at at this game for years, however. Her fascination with stunts began 25 years ago when she first began dating her now-husband. "We started out with simple rope tricks and graduated to chains," she said. Turns out he had his own dreams of stunt fame, but she was better. "And cuter," Purnell added.
This stunt 25 years in the making had quite a few people in the audience legitimately frightened for Purnell. The theme song to the Saw movies echoed eerily throughout the plaza as she disappeared inside the bin a little before 6 pm. We all watched with increasing dread as her frantically working hands struggled to pick the locks with a tiny pin. One minute, two minutes, now three. A man next to me became so agitated by minute three that he finally screamed at Purnell's husband, "That's your wife in there, man!" At an alarming 3 minutes and 17 seconds, just as the music reached a terrifying crescendo, Purnell finally picked the last lock and burst out through the lid, looking a bit worse for the wear. As she stood, gasping for breath to some hearty (and relieved) cheers, the announcer stepped forward to deliver a last-ditch eco-friendly message. "America is in a bind," the announcer said — an environmental bind, that is. "If Donna can get out, we can, too." But probably not in under 4 minutes.