Stage Notes: Play Dead

Tom Murrin
Penn & Teller, the comical and very original duo, is one of the most popular magic acts ever.  Teller, the smaller and less talkative of the pair, is also a writer and historian, both of magic and unusual kinds of showmanship. For Play Dead, he has teamed up with Todd Robbins, a magician who is also experienced in skills like sword swallowing and conducting séances. Both Robbins and Teller co-wrote the script, while Robbins performs and Teller directs. I spoke with Teller, who is most engaging.
Hi Teller.  Tell me about your show.
It began with the idea of doing a modern, smart version of the classic American spook show, which was a phenomenon that swept America from the '30s all the way up to the '70s.  In the local movie theater, on Saturday night at midnight, after the motion pictures were run, some crazy entrepreneurs, mostly magicians, got the idea to adapt their repertoire to dark Halloween themes and do a scary show.  It would attract teenagers who wanted to stay up late Saturday night.  The feature of the show was always the finale: a monster would appear on stage, a ghost or a mummy or a Frankenstein, and begin to make its way down into the audience.  At that moment, all the lights in the theater would go out, and all the teenagers would scream.
I'm liking this show already.
That was the jumping-off point for the show.  Both Todd and I did considerable research into all the things that happened to people in the dark.  Not just spook shows, but séances; the kind Houdini exposed, with luminous specters returning from the dead.  About five years ago Todd did a piece called "Charlatan's Séance" in which he reproduced the kind of events which would happen at a spiritualist church, like apparitions. Todd played the part of the preacher and he got a good scare out if it. So we asked ourselves: What would be an experience we would like to have with all of this going on in the dark?  And especially for adults, because we didn't want to just reproduce teenagers clutching each other.
OK, so can you tell me a little about the show itself?
In our show there are three dark sections.  In the beginning it's kind of a psychological experience: what would people do to each other when you throw them into the dark?  We found that when people's inhibitions go, it's liberating.  So that's the prologue, it gets people ready for the dark experience.  The show is one hour and 15 minutes, straight-through.

In the first act, a death happens right there in the theater, and we find ourselves with the necessity to call that person back from the grave.  That leads to the second dark room, when all the classical séance effects occur -- luminous specters, walking spirits.  It's the best séance room since the beginning of time. And let me say, it's all in the spirit of fun, wit and humor, but would we really want our dead to come back?  And all that leads to some other miraculous events, and the answer "maybe not."
I see your point.
Then there's one more section in the dark.  We're all in the dark and there are certain touches, spidery fingers, icy kisses -- and you're going to clutch your date whether you're 17 or 75.  In the end, you have answered the question: "If the dead could return, would you want them to?"  And you learn that the scariest things in the world are not fiction.  I believe it's going to be great fun, but the audience ends up learning that death is more than spooky amusement.
Players Theatre, 115 MacDougall St., (800) 745-3000. Previews Oct. 21, opens Nov. 10. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 7 & 10 p.m.; Sun., 3 & 7 p.m. $39.50-$59-50.

Photo by Thom Kaine

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