Play Dead isn’t exactly a movie – it’s more a movie experience. Magicians Todd Robbins and Teller (of Penn and Teller) opened an off-Broadway show of the same name, the original incarnation of Play Dead, running weekly at Players Theatre on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. For the show’s final performance, Teller hired Shade Rupe to document the night’s spooky events, and from that footage comes the film we have today. There are no Hollywood special effects or computerized images – all the tricks you see are performed by Todd Robbins himself, dancing with the dead in ways that will surely make your skin crawl. How does he successfully manipulate everything we know about life and death? Find out – if you dare.
The idea around Play Dead is that audiences allow themselves to be terrorized by a singular performer on stage, Todd Robbins, while he toys with the dark arts. Robbins brings a certain respectability to death, introducing us to psychopaths and murderers from history, and assures us that all the magic we’re about to witness is real. To demonstrate such, he opens the show by eating an entire glass light bulb like a tasty midnight snack, crunching the contents in his mouth without the presence of blood. Despite everyone wanting to believe it’s fake, numerous people inspect the bulb as Todd is eating it, confirming the glass is in fact pointy, hard, and should be uneatable. This sets the stage for Robbins’ act, letting him manipulate the audience through visual gags, prolonged scenes with the lights turned completely off, and logic-defying moments that actually make us question the very concept of magic being fake.
The showmanship of Todd Robbins is the most captivating thing about Play Dead, connecting us to an otherworldly realm he creates by distorting our imagination. Just like we can create these lavish fantasy worlds in our heads, our imagination can also be our worst enemy when focusing on our fears. By simply turning out the lights and poking someone with a stick, Todd Robbins turns into the scariest man alive – because our imaginations let him. You don’t know that’s just a stick poking you. It could be a hairy tarantula, or a creepy clown, or whatever your deepest, darkest fear is. Robbins not only sets out to scare his audience, but also dissect the mind’s ability to connect with the liveliness of horror.
Watching Play Dead isn’t a full experience though, because we’re watching a recorded live show – consequently making it not live in the least bit. We’re not sitting in a dark room being tormented by an evil actor, but instead watching a night vision recording of stage-hands in suits messing with people in the dark. For these moments Rupe’s accounts are a behind-the-scenes look, embodying the documentary style of the film, which almost removes some of the mystical aspects. Granted, if we were just watching an infinitely blank screen while audience members screamed, we’d surely fall asleep, but there’s a certain spark missing while watching the off-Broadway show completely off-Broadway.
Don’t get me wrong though, Todd Robbins pulls off some David Blaine type magic, and the light bulb is just the tip of the iceberg. The most mesmerizing moments come when Robbins brings up a random audience member to participate in one of the magic tricks, and while skeptics can argue they have to be plants, nothing suggests such a falsity, and they truly don’t know how to react to Robbins’ requests. One woman is actually terrified just to walk away from her date to join Robbins on stage, which is a testament to the believers he turns his audience into. For all intents and purposes, he kills a man on stage and makes him reappear – voilà!
Play Dead is an entertaining treatment of a topic so many of us fear – death. Magician Todd Robbins takes us on an interactive journey into the afterlife, keeping his immediate audience members on edge with relentless thrills and scares. It’s a shame Play Dead already closed, because watching Shade’s film makes me seriously regret missing an opportunity to experience this real life horror event. It’s really a brilliant marketing tool, but as a movie alone, every bone in our body wants to jump through the screen and experience the show first hand. Watching the recording only gets you so far, and while it does a perfectly fine job entertaining thanks to Robbins’ deadly charisma, trying to imagine yourself experiencing the real thing will only get you so far. Wonder how much money it would take to bribe Todd Robbins to open up for one more night?
Wow, I seriously regret missing Play Dead in person after watching the film version on screen. While it's not exactly the real thing, there's still a gleeful amount of terrifying fun to be had.