Last night I had the chance to finally see the film “Play Dead” starring Todd Robbins. This really is my kind of production. Teller should be proud of his creation, which boasts the P&T style of direction without the cynical bombast that often overshadows their usual style of show. This was a class act all the way through. Todd is the ultimate storyteller and gives the entire film the kind of creative and compelling energy that sets him far above the standard side-show ballyhoo artist.
After knowing Todd’s work for many years in the once blooming “bizarrist” magician realm, it did my heart good to see him in a ghoulish mood weaving tales of terror and seance with such glee and absolute conviction – rare in any magic, theater or mentalism performance. You know this man is a pro from the first moment he speaks.
What Todd does in this heady hour and ten minute stew of ghostly tales and Grand Guignol revivalism is something totally ignored in main stream theater these days and an almost thankless task to sell to today’s sophisticated audiences so used to overblown CGI effects and slasher gore. He manages to create genuine warmth subtly mixed with dark humor in the Hitchcockian mode. How I miss this brand of glorious entertainment!
Hearkening back to the early days of the 40’s spook shows when unsuspecting live audiences were frequently plunged into complete darkness and treated to tactile sensations like cobwebs being drawn over their faces or the suggestion of live rats scurrying about under their seats, all this and much more is accomplished with freakish delight by Todd, Teller & Co.
Best of all for this skeptic was the blend of sly critical thinking that shoots through each story when it comes to death and the hereafter. Here Teller gets a chance to really speak out in his own way about the “pure evil” mediums do. Without the brash berating of Penn to overpower his message, he injects a heartfelt pathos into the proceedings that succeeds in reaching out to people on a viscerally emotional level. We need more of this approach in our skeptical activism. While still retaining the charm and basic secrets of the illusions so well done, the undertone of what has become the real evil that walks the streets today is revealed. Todd becomes a sort of dark game show host, comparing and showcasing the cruelty done by charlatans from the past disguised as mediums and calls them out for the criminals they truly are.
Sandwiched in between all the shock and awe are particularly poignant moments. At one point Todd goes into the audience and delivers a few well-placed hot readings, all the while retaining his cunning veneer of pure evil. He’s obviously and outwardly conning us and we recognize it and love it. In doing his readings, he reaches that moment in the spectator’s mind where that person is reminded of their lost loved one and encourages them to remember and feel that loss. After nearly bringing these people to tears, (which he could have easily accomplished, but mercifully holds back) he reminds the entire audience it’s all a ruse by having another random spectator step on stage and do the exact same thing. This is not a stooge in the traditional sense and showcases one of several state-of-the-art effects in the show. Brilliant. Sorry, no spoilers.
The point is clearly brought out about how vulnerable these “sitters” that were taken through this roller coaster of emotions can be . “…Maybe only for that one or two seconds, didn’t you feel that person? Didn’t you feel that you could believe for those two seconds?”
For me this was one of the scariest moments in the whole shockorama. It showed how even when we know better; we can all momnetarily lose our rational grip and want to believe to the exclusion of all rational or critical thinking, no matter how skeptical we may think we are. It only takes a second or two and an impeccable storyteller like Todd Robbins to bring us to our emotional knees.
This same brief heart-rending tipping point moment was also brought out powerfully by Segourney Weaver in one of the better scenes in last year’s “Red Lights,” and one of the reasons I highly suggest viewing that film as well. In the mere blink of an eye, we can lose ourselves to a few whispered words.
I wonder if Teller saw that scene and sought the same reaction for “Play Dead?” I hope so. We need to see more of these momentary lapses of mental clarity and begin to understand how devastating they can be when manipulated by an individual who wishes to gain a foothold in our consciousness – for whatever purposes.
Such easily passed over “performances” are powerful indictments of what really moves us way beyond where it may be wise for us go in any “entertainment” offered up by the latest flavor of the month psychic or medium.
Hey Piers Morgan, Anderson, Colbert, Stewart and Leno, why can’t you read the writing on this wall?
Look for “Play Dead” wherever you can a find it – and support it. It’s a delightfully dark delicacy that shouldn’t be missed. Skeptic or not, you will get a real lesson in true evil and where it can lie in each of us.