Todd Robbins in Dark Deceptions: The Séance Experience
(Photo © Martyn Gallina-Jones)
Todd Robbins in Dark Deceptions: The Séance Experience
(Photo © Martyn Gallina-Jones)
[Ed. Note: This is the first in a series of TM review roundups of shows in the ninth annual New York International Fringe Festival.]

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Dark Deceptions: The Séance Experience

Todd Robbins is a master showman. Possessing a mellifluous voice and a confident demeanor, the charismatic performer dazzles with psychic tricks and illusions that the audience can sometimes -- but not always -- see through. Robbins demonstrates a healthy sense of humor in Dark Deceptions: The Séance Experience; his performance is enriched because he makes us feel like we're in on the joke.

This guy is not out to con anyone. In fact, he spends the first part of the show debunking spiritualism, from its origins to present-day practitioners like John Edward and Sylvia Brown. According to Robbins, these people do talk to the dead -- "It's just that the dead don't talk back to them," he says with a smile.

Then, with the help of a few simple costume accessories -- priest's collar, black jacket, and tinted spectacles -- he transforms himself into the Reverend T. L. Robbins of the Church of the Parted Veil. It's the Reverend Robbins who takes us through the séance experience. There are a few preparatory psychic exercises, the enlistment of audience volunteers, an exorcism, and then a plunge into darkness. Throughout, Robbins keeps up a lighthearted banter that sets the audience at ease while drawing us into the show. You may find yourself screaming in terror, howling with laughter, or possibly doing both simultaneously. Being deceived has never been this much fun.

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The Rude Pundit in The Year of Living Rudely

Lee Papa is the author of a successful blog called "The Rude Pundit," which uses the catchphrase "proudly lowering the level of political discourse." That should give you an idea of what to expect from his solo performance at the Fringe, The Rude Pundit in The Year of Living Rudely.

Papa traces everything that's gone wrong with this country back to Ronald Reagan, comparing the man to a smiling grandpa who molests his grandkids. He begins his one-man show by chronicling his excitement over the attempted assassination of Reagan and his disappointment that the President did not die that day. He quickly moves on to more recent targets, including George W., the Bush twins, and Jerry Falwell.

The writer-performer seems rather obsessed with anal intercourse, whether in his "modest proposal" for liberals to start raping Republicans or his fantasy of former Democratic Presidential candidate John Edwards inserting all manner of items into Dick Cheney's rectum. Most of these comments have a somewhat homophobic subtext, but I'll admit to being tickled by what Papa says John Kerry's comeback to charges of liberalism should have been: "Say it again and I'll shove a flip-flop up your ass."

Much of the humor in The Year of Living Rudely is unapologetically crass. The set, for instance, is a line-up of blow up dolls affixed with the faces of such Republican leaders and pundits as Reagan, George W. Bush, Colin Powell, and Ann Coulter. Many of these -- including the Coulter doll -- are equipped with dildos. Papa rarely does more than lash out rather simplistically against conservatives; there's no in-depth political analysis and no great wit to be found here, with the exception of a segment that insightfully focuses on what it cost the nation to make "liberal" a bad word. Also, Papa isn't the most dynamic of performers, which makes the 50-minute show seem to drag on for much longer than its actual length. The performance is bound to appeal to fans of the Rude Pundit's blog but is unlikely to earn him any converts among the regular theatergoing public.

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Michael Hunsaker and Alyssa Rae in Shakedown Street
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Michael Hunsaker and Alyssa Rae in Shakedown Street
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Shakedown Street

The inclusion of songs by Grateful Dead members Robert Hunter and the late Jerry Garcia have created a lot of buzz around the new musical Shakedown Street. This noir-ish piece is set in 1941 San Francisco, and while it has many flaws, there's also much to be admired about the ambitious project.

The action centers around a down-on-his-luck private investigator named Duke Bishop (Michael Hunsaker), who's hired for a job that at first seems to be about foiling a blackmail scheme against a crooked judge but later turns out to involve a trio of Spanish mission paintings and a lost treasure. Book author Michael Norman Mann's work is one of the weaker aspects of the production; there are numerous holes and unclear motivations in the plot. For instance, why is Bishop hired in the first place? Even given the number of hidden alliances and betrayals that are revealed by play's end, Bishop's actual function in anyone's scheme is not satisfactorily explained.

Much better is the music. In addition to such Grateful Dead hits as "Stella Blue" and "Scarlet Begonias," Hunter has written a handful of new songs with composer Greg Anton. George Croon has provided jazzy orchestrations for all the tunes, giving the show a unified sound and more of a period feel. While the balance between the live band and the singers is not always perfect, it's serviceable. There's also some very nice harmony work, particularly in "U.S. Blues" (sung by Michael Sheraton, Enrique Bravo, Brian Gallagher, and Bjorn Wenner) and a gorgeous love duet between Bishop and blonde bombshell Lana Lavelle (Alyssa Rae) titled "You Remind."

As with any show that utilizes a pre-existing musical catalogue, some of the songs are shoehorned into the narrative. There's no good dramatic reason for the use of "Truckin'," for example. "Wharf Rat" is a dynamic opening number that takes time to introduce a character named August West (Charles R. King), mentioned in the song's lyrics, but that character is subsequently dropped from the plot.

Director Jeff Griffin is unable to overcome the limitations of the script, and the characterizations he has coaxed from his cast seem flat and often stereotypical. However, choreographer Christine O"Grady does some nice work, particularly in the large group numbers. There's potential in Shakedown Street, but -- to quote the title song's lyrics -- "you just gotta poke around" to find it.

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Pipe Dreams

When Nicole Blaine went off to college, she thought she was grown up. In the rapid-fire opening monologue of Pipe Dreams, Nicole lists all the things that made her feel like an adult: She became captain of the cheerleading team, got a serious boyfriend, and made two gay friends. She ends the sequence by detailing her return home for summer break and her discovery of her mother smoking crack cocaine. "Fuck," she says softly. "I just grew up."

In her solo show, co-written and directed by her husband Mickey Blaine, the artist details both her childhood and adult years. Her parents divorced when she was young, and her mother remarried a man whom she refers to as "Crazy Larry." He's the one who got Blaine's mother hooked on crack and whose pedophilic tendencies are creepily detailed by the writer-performer. Blaine eventually focuses on what she terms "the crack years," during which she dropped out of college to take care of her little brother and deal with her mother's addiction.

Blaine has a good rapport with the audience, and she tells her story with humor despite the seriousness of the situations described. She's not adept at inhabiting characters other than herself but indicates them well enough, so it's never confusing who she's portraying. She also demonstrates a powerful emotional connection to the material, particularly towards the end of the performance. The show obviously has therapeutic value for Blaine, yet it's not as self-indulgent as one might fear. Sure, there are a few trite moments -- e.g., a chance encounter with Friends star Jennifer Aniston, who recommends that the budding actress do her own one-woman show. But the performance has a nice arc and a moving story, compellingly delivered.