Review by: Scott Feinblatt
Everybody's Got to Go Sometime
Everybody's Got to Go Sometime
Play Dead Takes Audiences for a Romp in the Graveyard
You can see Play Dead at Geffen Playhouse until January 12.
Magician Todd Robbins shepherds audience members through his and Teller's
show
Play Dead.                                                                    Photo by Michael Lamont
Play Dead is both irreverent and poignant, but it never
stops being intriguing
.           Photo by Michael Lamont
Death is the great equalizer, but it is also
a terrific market. According to
Ibisworld,
the psychic industry, in which mediums
allege communication with the dead, earns
$2 billion dollars annually – religious
institutions and the funeral industry make
that figure pale by comparison, but those
are stories for another time. The point is
that many people who have experienced
loss have such difficulty coping with harsh
reality that they become easy targets for
con artists. Famous illusionist
Harry
Houdini complemented his career as a
magician and an escape artist with
debunking spiritualists because he hated
seeing grief-stricken people's
vulnerabilities being exploited. Given the
psychic industry's current dollar value, it is
easy to believe that many people are as ready to accept hoodoo as they were 100 years ago (give or take) when
Houdini was revealing that mediums were no more genuine than prestidigitators.
Todd Robbins celebrates
Houdini's tradition in
Play Dead.
With Play Dead, Robbins and co-writer Teller (of the famous
magic duo Penn and Teller) have created an interactive theater
piece which employs illusion, storytelling and humor to provide
guests an entertaining meditation on mortality and the illusory
nature of the spirit world. I am reluctant to discuss the show in
any detail because Robbins requested that the particulars be
left for attendees to experience for themselves. I will say that
Play Dead is essentially an old-fashioned spook show, and
Robbins's personal and historical anecdotes – which range from
mischievous to tragic – are the show's heart. Using humor and
some very effective framing devices (again, mums the word),
Robbins creates an intriguing platform for the show's smooth
transitions between factual stories, existential queries and
theatrical illusions and effects.

The show is very well balanced in a number of ways. The stage
effects, which have a great range of sophistication, do not
eclipse the humanity that the tales provide. The gruesome
visuals (yes, gore hounds, you will be placated) are kept at bay
with humor. The appropriately dignified moments of the show
are delightfully offset with some appropriately lascivious
moments. But the most profound balancing act is the
juxtaposition on the topic of
mediums.

Specifically, there are moments during the show which have the
potential to trigger overwhelming, personalized, emotional
responses. Both onstage and off, Robbins discussed the
possibility of these demonstrations getting out of hand;
moreover, he cited a past instance wherein... (alas, I've said too
much). Essentially, there is a fine line with some of this material,
and whereas the narrative provides an opportunity for subjective
experiences of
Play Dead (what great showmanship!), it also
presents a risk for both people who are emotionally vulnerable as
well as for Robbins, himself, whose function is to entertain and
educate people with his show – not to manipulate or cause pain.
The bottom line is that Robbins creates a safe environment for his
psychic demonstrations. First, he demonstrates vehement scorn
for people who prey on broken-hearted individuals; second, he
discusses the lessons he's learned from his show's history; finally,
he apologizes profusely for treading this ground and insists that
anyone who states he can communicate with the dead is a liar.
Robbins is bold for performing this material, but he does so
responsibly. Furthermore, given the power of belief, Robbins's
nearly excessive apologies are not uncalled for; Houdini's friend
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the Sherlock Holmes series) believed that
the spirit world was real and that Houdini actually possessed
supernatural powers, and this led to a falling out and public feud
between them.

Everybody dies, and since we are “blessed” with knowledge of our
own mortality, we might as well relegate the discussion to
appropriate forums. Robbins's essentially one-man show, directed
by Teller, is an appropriate forum. In it, Robbins covers the
starkness of death's reality, the manners in which people avoid
that reality and the ugliness of opportunists who prey on
mourners; by using humor and illusion, Robbins makes these
topics accessible and gives his audiences an hour and twenty
minutes in which to let their inhibitions down and contemplate
death with a light heart.
After the show, Robbins explains to his guests the
delicacy of balancing sensitive material with
showmanship.                             Photo by Scott Feinblatt