The Art of Death

As you can see from typoattack’s previous post, our theater class recently saw the show Play Dead. Unlike him, who wrote a review, I wrote a critical essay focusing on one specific aspect of the show. That said, let Playing with the dead begin.

On its official website, “Play Dead” calls itself “a dramatic, unnerving thriller.” Such a claim gives any prospective audience members expectations as to the quality of the show. Furthermore, theater and horror do not often go together, making “Play Dead” a unique production in modern theater. Created by magicians Todd Robins and Teller, from Penn & Teller, “Play Dead” is a magic show that plays on human fears and touches on the psychology behind this emotion. Todd Robins, the sole onstage performer for the majority of the show, narrates the stories of real people who are today remembered for their incredible acts of deception and their results. Their stories are difficult to believe today because of how unreal they seem to a modern “civilized” ear. The stories are all of the type suitable for telling as a ghost story around a campfire because they are about people who created fear or preyed on other people’s fear. Yet despite being all about fear, the show never becomes too “heavy” with fear and has many funny moments to lighten the mood. At its most basic, the show could be nothing more than a series of magical acts and spooky stories but the showmanship of Todd Robins and the illusions by Robins and Teller holds it all together and makes for a truly enjoyable theatrical experience.

The show relies on Todd Robins to move forward. Without him, the show would be a ghost story magic show instead of a theatrical performance. He serves as the narrator and introduces all the different stories involved in the show. However, his close involvement inside the show also gives him a close involvement as narrator. This allows him to accentuate certain aspects of the stories and the conmen involved in them. These conmen committed acts of deception ranging from violently grotesque to coldly unfeeling. Acts that leave people today wondering how such a thing could ever happen and how their victims fell for the tricks. Robins proceeds to show just how possible they are by doing the same or similar thing to randomly selected audience members. Not only that, but his cool demeanor in the face of “performing” such terrible acts gives an unsettling look at the mindset of the people whose stories he tells. The audience members involved—as well as the rest of the audience—just heard Robins talk about the original act and how it is all just a trick, yet he still fools everyone. Throughout this process, he points out quirks of behavior in the audience that raise psychological questions about fear and human reaction to it. Most of the humor in the show derives from this last aspect of Robins’ performance. Another aspect of his performance that enhances the entire experience is Robins’ skill at improvisation. Due to the fact that he picks random audience members to go up on stage with him, he has no clue how a certain scene might play out. Despite the obvious improvisation needed in the show, it is never obvious that he made up a line and lines from the script are very difficult to distinguish from his own ad-libbed lines. Both kinds of lines sound just as organic, just as rehearsed, and just as effective.

Robins’ performance is not the only thing that sells the show. He and Teller show their mastery of the magician’s trade with the illusions used in the show. The first trick in the show is a straightforward, non-illusionary act that Robins is famous for that sets the bar for believability in the show. From there, the acts become more elaborate and unexplainable as the show goes on. However, the audience always knows that everything is an illusion because the acts alternate between seemingly impossible and laughably simple to explain. However, the audience still feels wonder and awe at the unknown, which leaves them more susceptible to blasts of fear. This all culminates in one final climactic scene where all hell breaks loose and they throw everything they have at the audience, testing the limits of the audience.

Humans fear the unknown. This one statement is the hallmark of any good work of horror. It is difficult to be afraid of something that is expected, especially on a large scale. “Play Dead” plays with this. The show has a disclaimer that vaguely warns about certain things that will happen in the show that sets up an expectation. Part of that expectation is that the show will not be scary because one knows what to expect. “Play Dead” proves this expectation wrong. While the audience does know a little of what is to come, they still do not understand it. This is just an extension of Todd Robins’ stage technique for the show. He explains a smidgen of what is to come but not enough for people to understand what is going on while things are happening. The uncertainty involved as well as the presentation itself creates a mild feeling of fear. Ultimately Todd Robins’ performance is a major contributor to the success of the show “Play Dead”

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