Todd Robbins in The Charlatan's Séance
(© T. Charles Erickson)
Todd Robbins in The Charlatan's Séance
(© T. Charles Erickson)
If you enjoy rides like Disney World's The Tower of Terror, a roller coaster that pretends to take place in the elevator car of an old hotel, you'll enjoy The Charlatan's Seance, a one-man show created by Todd Robbins now at Red Bank's Two Rivers Theatre. Like the roller coaster, the best part of The Charlatan's Séance takes place in the dark, leaving you unsure what spooky thing will happen next and when, while you hear shrieks and nervous laughter all around you.

And like the theme-park ride, The Charlatan's Séance creates a spooky world for the spectator to inhabit. At the café in the theater's lobby, Magic 8 balls decorate the tabletops. In the entrance to the Marion Huber Theater, the intimate black box venue where the show is held, old-time portraits on easels have spooky secrets. For example, a skull shows through a beautiful woman's face as you get nearer to it. A ghostly figure hovers behind two women, seen in the right light. In the auditorium, the stage replicates a 19th-century parlor, with an Oriental rug and candle wall sconces. (The scenic design is by William Barclay.)

After the sound of a beating heart rises to a crescendo, followed by a blackout, Robbins appears as a kind of tour guide to the spooky, seductive world of Spiritualism. In Robbins' opinion, however, spiritualism was always a "wonderfully evil fraud, preying on good people." He tells us about the Fox sisters, who originated the movement: two naughty children who learned how to crack their toe joints and fooled their parents into thinking the rapping was caused by spirits. The desire to communicate with the departed, Robbins explains, was based in a society where the average life expectancy was 37 years old. Indeed, Spiritualism attracted such intellectuals as Mark Twain and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the show, Robbins takes on the role of The Pastor, an entertaining, overly earnest huckster who even sounds like Harold Hill. Most of the evening combines simple magic tricks with demonstrations of the power of illusion, including a particularly eerie example involving the entire audience holding a string and paper clip. As you "think" the clip which direction to go, it seems to obey. Even knowing that one's thoughts must lead one to make small movements with your finger, the effect startles.

Robbins also pretends to communicate with "spirit" connected to some members of the audience. This trick is less effective than it might be, since Robbins never explains how he makes his guesses, and in the café, theatre ushers are clearly soliciting information from the audience. Robbins' insights are so generic they're almost funny, such as "She had a full life, but there was diminishment at the end." or "You have an open nature, but it has led you to be hurt." But as you see the solemn and hopeful faces of the audience members recalling loved ones, though, the joke ceases to be funny.

The Charlatan's Séance also offers some final oh-so-spooky minutes. When someone shrieks "something touches me!" and you can't see a thing, Robbins coughs up some genuine thrills and creepy chills.