Los Angeles Theater Review: PLAY DEAD (Geffen Playhouse)

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by Paul Birchall on November 24, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


This tour de force of trickery from creators Todd Robbins and the magician Teller (the traditionally silent half of the famous magician duo Penn and Teller) is a magic show.  However, be warned before attending:  This is not a cheerfully sweet show with magic as whimsy.  There are no adorable kids’ party magic tricks featuring an amiable magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat or linking a set of rings together and then unlinking them.  This is no magical show with David Copperfield grinning happily as he makes a delightful elephant appear to the delight of children and grandparents.  If a rodent is pulled out of a hat here, you can bet it will get its head bit off and the blood will spew all over the audience.

Indeed, kids are really best not taken to this show at all – actually, you have to be over 18 to be allowed in.   Rather, Teller and Robbins artfully present a sort of Dark Carnival that’s both fun and eerie.  This is a show about magic as sinister and chaotic force – and it is more than occasionally deeply disturbing on an emotional level.  One of the pleasures of the show is the consistently evoked sense of unease – the delightful magical acts belie undercurrents of dread and mortality.  This is a Screams and laughter make for a spooky night of entertainment in Play Dead at the Geffen Playhouse.haunted house show for audiences who are fond of ambiguity:  Impressions left by these tricks last long after the show ends.

Robbins and Teller attempt to explore the links between evil and magic, with the adroitly articulated hint that true evil is a sort of magic because to good people it’s incomprehensible.  And if this show has an ability to rouse strong emotions through the use of sleight of hand – well, that is certainly magic indeed.  The production boasts an almost palpable sense of danger that is as carefully cultivated as it is deceptively simple – the audience truly never knows what’s going to happen next, and that sense of unpredictability is thrilling.

With creepy delight, Todd Robbins uses sight, sound and touch to raise a host of real life horrors in Play Dead at the Geffen Playhouse.Entering the theater, we pass a pair of leering skeletons – one with a mustache and one in ladies clothes.  On designer Tom Buderwitz’s nicely murky-looking set, the stage itself is decorated like a maniac’s dusty attic, full of mysterious boxes, on which have been scribbled the names of dead folks, some famous and some not.  Numerous ghoulish artifacts – from death masks to horror movie posters to evangelical “Jesus Saves” neon signs – litter the stage like a creepy museum.  Into this already uneasy-making atmosphere, strides Robbins, the magician, resplendent in his white linen suit.  He’s genial, even welcoming – but beneath his charm, there’s the sense of someone who’s utterly untrustworthy, not because he’s a trickster but because he has evil wisdom that might very well be used to hurt you.   His turn reminds us of the acting of the late, great Vincent Price, with an onstage persona that conveys an outward smiling geniality that might not actually be friendliness if you look too closely.

Spirits aren't the only things that get raised when audience members and Todd Robbins play with a Ouija board in the Geffen Playhouse production of Play Dead, created by magicians Robbins & Teller.After eating a light bulb (no really, it’s horrifying, crunch-crunch-crunch), Robbins dowses the lights, plunging the theater into pitch darkness.  Fingers (or other slimy digits) slide across the back of our necks as we scream.  When the lights come back up, Robbins warns us that it’s now too late:  The doors have been locked.  From here, Robbins invites us on a journey into the land of weird.  Admittedly, the magic tricks themselves are essentially just deconstructed versions of traditional old favorites – but what is innovative here is the mood and tone of the presentation:  It’s a magic show by way of Clive Barker or Steven King, perhaps.   And, really, at a magic show, you really shouldn’t feel too safe;   why would you want that?

Spirits of mediums, serial killers and charlatans are conjured up in Play Dead at the Geffen Playhouse.Going into too much detail would totally undercut the suspense of the evening – but suffice it to say that folks are “volunteered” from the audience to participate.  Some are thrown in a tub, clubbed, and then dissolved into bones and goo with sulfuric acid; others are “magicked” into revealing secrets of long dead relatives.  A man is plucked from the audience, has his stomach sawn open (an interesting and ghoulish riff on the traditional ‘saw a woman in half’ trick), and a beautiful woman emerges from it, only to turn into… something else.

The macabre infused with merriment makes an evening of spine chilling entertainment at the Geffen Playhouse in Play Dead, created by magicians Todd Robbins (pictured) & Teller.Teller’s direction is a work of exceptional technical and contextual skill.  Robbins performs his breezy monologue, opening boxes containing artifacts of cruelty and shock left by various dead villains, but his patter disguises the effortlessness of the smoothly executed magical craft.  As with stand-up comedy, magic trick performance is a craft that is relies on reactions in real time:   Robbins gauges just the right moment to misdirect the audience so that we are again and again looking in the wrong place at the right time for his splendid climaxes and supernatural codas.

Todd Robbins removes the evidence of an on-stage murder in Play Dead, an evening of spooky entertainment at the Geffen Playhouse created by magicians Robbins & Teller.Meanwhile, the atmosphere of disquiet apprehension Teller creates is subtle and nuanced.  During various magical tricks, and sometimes right before our eyes, we suddenly notice that boxes and stage props have somehow moved around or been re-placed on the set – but no one has been near them.  All stage hands should be like this!  Ultimately, though, this is one of the coolest and engrossing intimate spectacles of magical stagecraft in recent memory, combining excellent stagecraft with nicely evoked meditations on mortality and dread.  If you can stand your magic tricks with this much Nietzchean philosophy, and you have a stomach for gore, you should go.

photos by Michael Lamont

Play Dead
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater
Geffen Playhouse
scheduled to end on December 22, 2013
EXTENDED to January 12, 2014
for tickets, call 310-208-5454 or visit http://www.GeffenPlayhouse.com/

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