Stage Review: Play Dead

Perhaps you think the dead have returned to their graves since Halloween ended nearly a month ago?

Au contraire, my friends! The dearly departed are everywhere present in Play Dead, an extravagant horror show that puts most Halloween haunts to shame in its capacity to summon spirits from beyond.

Am I speaking literally? Aye, there's the rub - on which much of the show's power rests. In Totem and Taboo, Freud wrote that primitive art, such as cave paintings, was intended not merely to depict but actually to evoke - in the sense of literally calling something forth. Typical haunted house attractions merely depict uncanny horrors; Play Dead evokes them on a profound emotional level, rendering them as a palpable presence in the theatre, and the clever conceit is that, though we in the audience have come to enjoy imaginary entertainment, the play is offering us something more genuine, and disturbing...

In this one-man show, Todd Robbins plays himself as a smiling, sadistic sociopath - suckering the audience with magic and jokes while beguiling them into a Devil's Bargain that will open the Gates of Hell, unleashing an evil that may not be as comfortably fictional as we would prefer. The first hint that we in the audience may be not only observers but also victims comes before the show starts, when the voice of Teller (the "silent" member of Penn and Teller, who directed and co-wrote the show) is heard telling us to silence our cell phones: "Good. Now you have no way to call for help. Goodbye...and I do mean goodbye..."

The performance consists of various stage illusions (an on-stage murder, a seance, etc) tied together with several terrifying tales: some personal, some historical - all of them true. After opening with a demonstration of glass eating (yes, it's a real glass light bulb), Robbins plunges the theatre in darkness, allowing unseen beings within to touch the audience; then he upends an hour glass (actually, more like a five-minute glass), providing an opportunity for the timid to escape before the show gets really scary - an opportunity that no one takes (any more than they did when filmmaker William Castle offered a "Fright Break" in his 1961 film Homicidal*). After that, the doors of the theatre are "locked" (you hear the chains clanking into place), and you are there for the duration, come what may.

Todd Robbins invites an audience member to stick her hand in a box full of evil.
Todd Robbins invites an audience member to stick her hand in a box full of evil.

What comes next begins innocuously enough, with tales of parties Robbins used to throw in graveyard or a recounting of the crimes of child killer Albert Fish; however, Play Dead soon begins to push more disturbing emotional buttons. Audience participation is required: one member reaches inside a "Box of Evil" and removes a hand covered in blood; another is apparently killed on stage. Robbins himself demonstrates a geek show act that leaves his face covered in blood after "devouring" a live animal - a moment that, ironically, provokes more screams of outrage than the human murder.

Gradually, the tone shifts toward the apologetic as Robbins moves away from atrocities to seances and other efforts to breach the divide separate this world from the next. Instead of merely debunking charlatanism, Robbins demonstrates its emotional power, inviting the audience to conjure images of their lost loved ones and then presenting a few select members with messages from their remembered dead. None of these people are plants; all of them go through the exact same experience as if they were dealing with a "genuine" medium. You sense that at any moment, the experience could go too far, the facade of entertainment cracking to reveal the raw emotions underneath. Somehow it doesn't, at least not on the night we attended, and Robbins repeatedly begs forgiveness for what he's doing to prove a point; that our sense of loss remains with us forever, making us vulnerable to unscrupulous grifters who would exploit our emotions for their own personal gain.

Todd Robbins raises spirits at the Geffen Playhouse.
Todd Robbins raises spirits at the Geffen Playhouse.

Play Dead contains all the elements of an entertaining, interactive spook show, replete with magic and amazing special effects: a glowing spirit horn flies over the theatre; amorphous phantoms emerge in the dark; a dead medium is resurrected - in the nude - through makeshift surgery (thought not quite in the way that description would have you imagine). Yet the spectral illusions pale beside the darker layers lurking within the text: tales of murder and loss, of emotional cataclysms that haunt us forever and leave us seeking solace in a search for spirits. These disturbing undercurrents turn Play Dead into a memorable Theatre of Horrors that will not merely satisfy haunt-chasers suffering from Post-Halloween Withdrawal Syndrome; it will surpass and eclipse your memory of even the most terrifying Halloween haunts.

Play Dead continues in the Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at Geffen Playhouse through Sunday, December 22, with performances running Tuesdays through Sundays, except for Thanksgiving day. The address is 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90024. Tickets can be purchased at the Geffen Playhouse box office, online at their website, or by calling 310-208-5454. Prices range from $57 to $87.

FOOTNOTE:

  • *The reference to William Castle is not random. The late producer-director is represented on stage by a box with his name on it, presumably containing mementos of his career. These boxes are from the personal collection of Todd Robbins, though they do not contain actual artifacts (which would be too costly for the theatre to insure). Also on stage are boxes for Edgar Alan Poe, Willis O'Brien, Lon Chaney, and many others.

More in this series: 

  1. Play Dead at Geffen Playhouse
  2. Stage Review: Play Dead