Evil. What is it about that word that sounds so eerie? Is it the hard "E" sound that seems to puncture the heart or the rarely used "V" that looks like a weapon? Or is it being one letter shy of devil? Todd Robbins stabs the audience repeatedly with that word and those questions during his solo show Play Dead, now at the Geffen Playhouse. Robbins lets it wash all over them like pig's blood at a prom so they feel they are partaking in a dangerous event, one with real and lasting ramifications. For even though you know everything is a trick, are you sure?
Rooted in Grand Guignol, Robbins' performance art, the evening begins with a meal that crunches into the audience's bones. Cowritten and directed by Teller of Penn & Teller, this show incorporates demonic noises and effects, intimation and darkness itself, to unnerve the audience. Dressed in a stark-white suit and a red shirt, tie and handkerchief, Robbins embodies the elegant Beelzebub. Throughout the evening, his jacket becomes littered with more and more gore. The blood comes from innocent audience members who have been brought to the stage to "play dead." This only tightens the mood. Robbins refuses to allow audiences the comfort of illusions. He calls himself a sociopath and acts in such a way that audiences aren't positive he has not brutally slayed audience members in full view. Robbins introduces the audience to several maniacal characters from the past: murders, false psychics, and dabblers in the macabre. The stories of their deeds are vivid and Robbins illustrates with his flimflam how dangerously inviting these long-dead villains to our world can be.
The view also consists of Tom Buderwitz's set, a cornucopia of murder memorabilia of circus geeks and child killers as well as ride cars and funhouse signs. It is a feast for the eyes while Gary Stockdale's creepy music evokes both carnival and silent horror tunes. Magic designer Johnny Thompson and illusion engineer Thom Rubino make people vanish, tables jump, and speaking trumpets fly to complete the illusion that demons have taken over the theater. While the designers execute their own feats of intrigue, it is Robbins on whom you continually focus as he asks the audience to agree to let evil inhabit their souls, so that they become willing participants taking full responsibility for welcoming the dead spirits to the theater. Though you would bet that everything is in jest and just a game, that tiny voice of fear in your mind still warns not to play with the occult or else. And that once you leave the theater, the odor of evil may follow you anywhere.
There is something deliciously unholy about Play Dead and Todd Robbins. This is after all a mainstream theater in a major city. It is not a backwoods carny stand in a deserted forest. But Robbins convinces the audience they have witnessed shocking and gruesome evidence that the dead are back and malevolent. Robbins has turned the Geffen into a haunted house. You know it is completely safe…but are you SURE?