Back in the waning days of the Hollywood’s golden age, theatre owners were desperate for ways to lure teens back into their movie houses, so they turned to local magicians who created what is now known as the Spook Show. The spook show was sort of vaudeville, sort of traditional magic act with the biggest thrill of any show being a “full dark” interlude where the cinema would be enveloped in darkness, the magician would get to pretend something extra spooky was about to happen, and the h***y teens could indulge in a little heavy petting without anybody knowing any better.
Inspired by such antiquated delights, sideshow maestro Todd Robbins and mute magician Teller (yes, of Penn & Teller fame) teamed up in 2009 to create the off-Broadway hit Play Dead, which has now been filmed by author Shade Rupe (Dark Stars Rising) and released on the festival circuit. Part one-man confessional, part gory-magic show and part examination of our relationship with death, Play Dead is a unique experience, both recreating and in some places demystifying the theatrical experience.
The first half of the show is comprised mainly of storytelling and macabre pranks on the audience, as well as a few full dark segments shot with infrared cameras to let the film audience in on the joke. The second half gets a little more serious, with the focus shifting from the macabre in general to the exploitation of grief and the manipulation of our relationship with the dead by predatory “mediums” and self-styled “psychics.”
Without a doubt the star of the show is Robbins. An imposing figure in his pure white suit, Robbins’ command over the audience is unflinching and absolute, eliciting screams of terror when pretending to eat a rat and howls of laughter when beating a man to death, and then quickly admonishing the audience for their ironic reaction to those events. You never for a moment question who is in charge, as he plays both seducer and tormentor with equal ease and relish.
The feeling is very much of a filmed play, which it is, with the viewer getting the appropriate approximation of being in the audience. There are moments earlier in the show that make you wonder if something is going to reach out from the void in your theater and scare the bejeezus out of you, but that is likely owing more to Robbins’ masterful performance than anything else.
In the end, Play Dead mostly makes you wish you were in the audience at the live show yourself. Which is probably the greatest compliment there is.