Outside the walls of the Founders Room at the Geffen Playhouse, high-screeched whirring from an electric circular saw cuts through the air. “Don’t worry,” shouts magician Todd Robbins, wearing a blue pin-striped suit, sans the chameleon silk handkerchief often used in magic. “We’re testing out a new act on one of our actors.” A wicked sense of humor exudes from the performer/co-creator of Play Dead, which opens Wednesday at the Geffen’s smaller space, Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater.
Drawn to character and the con
A hoarse cough emits from the illusionist. He gestures apologetically and pops a mint into his mouth. “I’ve been swallowing swords all week at the Magic Castle.” Like magic, the cough disappears.
“It’s good to be home,” remarks Robbins. “I’m a California native. I grew up in a suburban area of Long Beach — new, clean, safe, quiet, peaceful. It was everything my parents wanted. They had grown up during the Depression and went through World War II. There was a lot of uncertainty in the world, so when you come out of that, you get the 1950s. ‘We want vanilla. We want everything nice.’”
“As a child, for me, it was all about expansion, discovering new things. I was always kind of a watcher, a pull-back kid, processing things, thinking quite a bit. I loved coming to downtown Long Beach and seeing the old buildings and architecture, wondering where these things came from.”
With a warm smile of recollection, Robbins describes his fascination with all things with “character.”
“There was The Pike; an old amusement park from around the turn of the century. By the time I was old enough to go (in the 1960s), it was, ‘You do not go down there! Good people don’t go to The Pike!’ It’s true. It was a seedy place.”
“And of course I went to The Pike,” he chortles. “It was great. It was glorious. It had character!”
In the neighborhood of his youth, a magic shop opened in a nearby, rundown strip mall. All of 10 years old, Robbins curiously walked through its door — a decision that affected his life to this very day in unimaginable ways. With bated breath, he describes the experience.
“The shelves were filled with apparatus specifically designed to deceive the senses and create the illusion of an alternative reality. On Saturday afternoons, I took magic lessons. Afterwards, I’d hang out and talk with the magicians who would use it kind of like a clubhouse.”
“They would sit in the front room chain-smoking unfiltered Camel cigarettes, doing card tricks with each other and swapping lies. I’d ask them about their stories and the history of magic. These were guys who had worked vaudeville and were crusty. Like old war horses, every scar they had, they earned. It was exciting!”
Taken with his new-found friends and the world of magic, a few years later Robbins became the first Junior Member of the famous Magic Castle.
At 16, the full-of-beans youngster then decided to create spooky mayhem in the lives of his high school friends. On Friday nights under a full moon and with flashlight in hand, Robbins would lead the teenagers to the Long Beach Municipal Cemetery.
“I found out the main gate at the cemetery was never locked. Cemetery plots and mausoleums with famous families went back over 100 years. One tomb was sort of built into the hillside with a perfect little stage. I’d set the tone telling stories about the people buried there and the strange things that had happened. My friends would grab each other, terrified, getting wigged out, with screams followed by laughter. Then other sounds.”
With a wry grin and mischievous twinkle in his eye, Robbins leans in. “As we say in the show [Play Dead], ‘You’re never so alive as when you’re scared to death. There’s nothing more arousing than an unholy resurrection.’”
Trial by magic
After graduating from college with a theater degree — “a great, useful degree,” avows Robbins with raised eyebrow — he journeyed north to study at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.
“I needed more training. Early on we were assigned scene partners; mine was a lovely young lady. We hit it off and became very good friends. Her name is Annette Bening. And she’ll be coming here in a few months [at the Geffen in Ruth Draper's Monologues].”
After graduating from ACT, Robbins moved to New York City. “I knew New York was the center of live entertainment, even though it wasn’t what it once was. I got there and made the rounds.”
Robbins grimaces as he reflects on a rocky start. “I was auditioning for people I didn’t like who had pretensions of high art that was no better than bad community theater. I found it all very dubious. I did a few readings, a couple of small shows in basement spaces, which was all kind of fun but it wasn’t paying the rent.”
“At that time the comedy boom began, and it was a seller’s market. An emcee would do comedy along with a headliner, and oft times the middle act at 20-25 minutes was a juggler, variety artist, or…,” pointing to himself with flair, “a magician.”
“It helped kick off a new vaudeville movement and establish performers like Bill Irwin and Penn & Teller. There was also the college market which was great. I went out with a comedy/magic act, made a decent living, and couldn’t take time off to do these little off-off-off-off-Broadway shows. I actually became a better performer using my training as an actor.”
Then another creative opportunity arose to further incorporate his magical talents. In 1992, Robbins joined up with the Coney Island Circus Sideshow. “I took all of the wonderful skills I had learned as a kid, and put them in their natural habitat of an amusement park sideshow that had all but vanished: swallowing swords, eating fire, hammering nails in my nose, doing all those great, classic acts from old-timers of character.”
Shortly, he became involved with the award-winning, not-for-profit Big Apple Circus, utilizing traditional magic tricks to bring joy to hospitalized children. “Not eating glass or hammering nails,” stresses Robbins. In addition to being a ringmaster at corporate events, the born showman participated in a touring show for two years. It was on that leg of his life’s journey when he realized, “I needed to get back in the theater.”
Re-entering the theater
With the know-how of the circus and carnival sideshows, Robbins mounted Carnival Knowledge for its Off-Broadway premiere at the Soho Playhouse in 2003. Critical reviews were mixed; however, audiences were entertained. The show ran for two years and was nominated for a Drama Desk Award.
After the success of Carnival Knowledge, Robbins was drawn to create a séance show. “I knew the history of the field, with all the tricks of the trade built upon fraud and illusion.” In 2005 at the New York International Fringe Festival, Dark Deceptions was presented. Robbins decided to fine-tune the show, re-titling it The Charlatan’s Séance, which was performed in 2007 at the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, New Jersey.
He still wasn’t satisfied. “It was fun but it was a little narrow in scope.” Then came along producer Alan Schuster, best known for the invigorating Stomp. He optioned Robbins’ show, but he also told the performer that he needed a director.
The magician agreed. He had done everything himself up to this point. The search for a director began, which was extremely trying, says Robbins.
“We got a lot of snobbery thrown our way. A lot of snobbery along the lines of ‘You’re doing a magic show. I do thea-tah. When I do a play, it cures cancer.’ That kind of pretension.” The received response didn’t deter Schuster. “It didn’t bother him one bit. But he couldn’t find anyone who understood the material. Alan then asked me, ‘Is there anyone you’re interested in?’”
Robbins had an ace up his sleeve, for he had known the illusionist Teller for many years. The non-speaking half of the duo Penn & Teller saw the show, agreed with Robbins’ assessment and stated his interest to direct. Robbins recalls further conversation with Schuster.
“We have a director ready to sign.” “Who is it?” “Teller.” “Teller? Does he talk?” “Yes, he talks, and when he does, we listen.” “Great!”
In Las Vegas, Robbins and Teller started with a blank slate. “Teller told me, ‘Let’s put everything you’ve done and everything Penn and I have done off to the side. Let’s think about what we’d like to put on the stage.’” All ideas were open for discussion but without the prerequisite of known tricks.
“The thing of a trick that exists and figuring out a presentation is very much like buying a suit off the rack and having it tailored. Instead, go to the tailor who knows what they’re doing and have something truly custom-fit.”
With that philosophy, veteran magician Johnny Thompson was brought into the mix. “It’s kind of a hackneyed thing to call him ‘the Yoda of Magic,’ but Johnny is. He’s the go-to-guy, having done magic for over 50 years. So we came up with all these things we wanted to see on the stage, and then threw them to Johnny. We brain-trusted the whole thing between the three of us, along with the wonderful Thom Rubino [illusions engineer]. The end result was we could do anything we wanted.”
What doesn’t kill you…
In September 2010, Play Dead had two weeks of workshop performances in Las Vegas. Two months later it opened Off-Broadway at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village. Death was invited to come out and play, which it did for a 10-month run. Another Drama Desk nomination followed for “Unique Theatrical Experience.”
Within the framework of a suspenseful, entertaining show, Robbins and Teller chose to create an interactive 3-D production: with the 3 D’s as Death, Darkness and Deception. Upon entering the theater, the thematic impact resonates. File boxes rest on the stage, but not just any file boxes. “These boxes each have a name on them, and in each of them are items from people’s lives; people who had their lives defined by their relationship with death.”
“This includes Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy; Ed Gein, one of the most horrific serial killers ever and the inspiration for Norman Bates, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs; William Castle, the delightfully cheesy horror filmmaker of the 1950s with Shock-a-Vision and The Tingler; to Dorothy Bembridge, a friend of mine who was the most devoutly religious woman I had ever met, who knew every word of the King James Bible by heart and spent her near 90 years in a relationship with God understanding what was coming after she left this realm.”
Robbins mentions the conjuring up of disreputable spirits during the show. Among those materialized are Mina “Margery” Crandon, the Boston socialite who held orgiastic séances raising more than the dead, as well as cannibalistic serial killer Albert Fish, the “Brooklyn Vampire.” Robbins cleverly adds depth to the meaning of a “dark” show with a throwback to the Spook Shows from the 1930s to 1970s.
“These magicians back in the day, after the main feature [film] was over, would do an hour of spooky magic onstage. They would finish off with ‘It’s the Witching Hour! It’s amazing what’s going to happen. Ghosts and ghouls will reach out and grab you.’ As he’s saying this, the Frankenstein monster would come towards him. The magician would yell, ‘No! Not me! Them!’ The monster would turn toward the audience and walk up to the footlights where flash pots would shoot off. Then absolute darkness. All hell would break loose.”
When asked if the Play Dead audience will be plunged into darkness, the charismatic Robbins replies with devilish relish. “Yesssssss.” His Long Beach graveyard antics from almost four decades ago are back.
Audience participation is a key element. Robbins emphatically states, “There are no audience ‘plants.’ Everyone who comes onstage is because I’ve looked at them a split second before saying, ‘Come with me.’ It’s amazing what people will do when you ask them nicely. …Even when killing them. It’s a show about death. You’ve got to kill at least one person.”
Like a sideshow carnival barker, Robbins offers a final pitch as to why audiences should flock to see Play Dead. “If people will come out of their tech-haven homes, we guarantee them an experience that will be the best way they can spend 75 minutes of their life. They will walk out of the Geffen Playhouse alive because they spent 75 minutes playing with Death.”
“It’s akin to the roller coaster ride where you scream and then you laugh. That’s what we’re going for — in equal measures. You will be terrified and love it!”
Play Dead, Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Avenue, Westwood 90024. Opens Wednesday. Tues-Fri 8 pm, Sat 3 pm and 8 pm, Sun 2 pm and 7 pm. Also Mon Nov 25, 8 pm. Dark on Thanksgiving Day. Through December 22. Tickets: $57-$87. www.geffenplayhouse.com. 310-208-5454.
**All Play Dead production photos by Michael Lamont.