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Coney Island showman Todd Robbins is suffering from a nasty bout of laryngitis when he answers the phone at his New York digs on a recent afternoon. Strange, since during the last two years it's his audience that has been doing all of the screaming.
Robbins, who co-created the off-Broadway horror phenomenon “Play Dead” with the often silent second half of renowned magic act Penn & Teller, has nine solo engagements lined up in rapid succession — and not much of a voice.
“So,” he wheezes, “it will be very interesting to see what happens there.”
Still, it can't be more stressful than raising the dead.
Written by Teller and Robbins, “Play Dead” deals in phantoms, physical improbabilities and various viscous fluids. It is simultaneously a throwback to the lost tradition of midnight spook shows and an exploration of spiritualism, in which the dead are both rendered and raised — often in complete darkness.
Teller directs, while Robbins handles the wetworks, bloodying not only his pristine, white suit in the process, but unsuspecting theatergoers, as well, all the while expounding upon killers and cretins of varying dimensions.
In 2011, during the final weeks of “Dead's” initial run, Teller enlisted horror enthusiast and author Shade Rupe to capture the production on film. The documentary debuted at Montreal's Fantasia International Film Festival in July 2012. On Thursday, it will screen as part of the Spooky Movie International Horror Film Festival at the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center, with all three of its creators in attendance.
Rupe, author of the horror omnibus “Dark Stars Rising,” had been present on “Play Dead's” opening night at The Players Theatre in Greenwich Village.
“I had never experienced anything like it,” he recalls. “It was like the first time I saw the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. I knew as soon as the ride was over, I needed to get right back on.”
Sharing Rupe's enthusiasm for the macabre is the man now known solely as Teller.
While generally the silent partner in the bit that made him famous, he is downright loquacious while waxing about his fascination with the American spookshow; one he shares with “Play Dead” co-creator Robbins.
“In 1929, there was a big revolution,” he explains. “[Motion pictures] were really taking over and magicians found their theaters being converted into movie houses.”
To combat the changing times, he says, magicians would negotiate with theater owners to keep auditoriums open beyond their normal midnight closing time, a movement that coincided with yet another technical achievement: luminous paint.
Essentially, says Teller, these midnight magicians would douse all of the house lights. “They'd advertise: 'Feel phantom hands groping you [from the great beyond.]'”
Some were good, he says. Others were terrible.
“The thing was — all you had to do was bring teenagers in at midnight and turn off the lights. That was the real show.”
“Play Dead” is a touch classier — with an emphasis on touch. Blackouts are staged on three separate occurrences —each with its own theme —plunging the audience into complete and utter darkness.
The show, say its creators, evolved from Robbins' desire to craft a séance-based play, with two early attempts — his “Dark Deceptions” and “The Charlatan's Séance,” serving as models. Teller had enjoyed a viewing while in New Jersey directing a horror adaptation of “Macbeth.” The concept clicked, but something more was needed.
At the prompting of producer Alan Schuster, Robbins traveled to Las Vegas to workshop a new production combining all of these elements.
“Over the course of three years … we tested and developed the structure of the show that is now 'Play Dead,'” says Teller. “Todd would come out and sit with me in my little Houdini alcove, and we'd talk endlessly.”
There, several show mainstays were developed, like Robbins' psychic surgery routine — in which a naked female demon is extracted from a volunteer's stomach — and the presiding story arc, wherein an audience member is killed within the first third of the production, and henceforth conjured.
While in its third trial run, “an extraordinary thing happened,” says Teller, during a sequence in which the name of a participant's relative is spelled out in ashes.
“When [the name of the man's mother] appeared in those ashes, he fell to his knees in tears. It was one of the most astonishing moments of live theater I've ever experienced,” Teller recalls. “And Todd [was saying to the man], 'What I've done here is wrong. It is deception. You've come here for amusement, and I have taken you to the greatest depths of sorrow.' And watching this guy come back from that, and forgive Todd, it was like a lightning bolt.”
“It takes me back to when I would hold séances in the graveyard during my younger days, trying to scare the daylights out of my friends and really get the juices going,” says Robbins. “As I always say, you're never more alive than when you're facing death.”
People, he says, are vulnerable, and the manipulation of such vulnerability is “very malevolent,” and something he and Teller wanted to touch upon.
“We're not so much interested in exposing the trick, as we are exposing the power,” he continues. “What is that dynamic? What does it do to our relationship? Why do [mediums] do this? And the answer is because there's a great deal of power [involved]. It's the same thing as an evangelist standing there and saying, 'I am your conduit to Jesus.' It's the same thing as a politician saying, 'Vote for me, and I will lead you on to glory.'”
Which isn't to say “Play Dead” is mired in self-righteous acts of debunking — there's little room for soapbox grandstanding, what with all of that blood spilled on stage.
“It's not a party until someone gets killed,” says Robbins, referring to the aforementioned story arc. “And there's no better [corpse] than one who is freshly dead. I kill someone off in every show. It's not an actor. It's someone I bring up on stage. Then there's that thing of, have you just seen a trick or reality? We're constantly playing with perception.”
Rupe, whose short film “T is for Trick” placed 11th out of 171 entrants to the horror anthology, “The ABCs of Death,” was recommended for the “Play Dead” shoot by Teller's frequent film collaborator, Ezekiel Zabrowski. Rupe initially was hired to document “Play Dead” for archival purposes.
“I just upped it,” Rupe says. “I suggested shooting the stage production as a concert film.”
Prior to filming, a month before “Play Dead's” closing off-Broadway, Rupe saw the show eight times, often scribbling down notes in the black void of an auditorium where he could not even detect his hand in front of his face.
“It was this small, 200-seat theater,” he says. “There were a number of different things that could go wrong, even if you did have $1 million to shoot it.”
Instead of a six-digit budget, Rupe and his team of news cameramen came equipped with infrared-capable cameras, to capture audience reaction to things that went bump in the dark.
“I was directing from backstage. I couldn't be out there,” Rupe recalls. “It's very different … directing live shows. It's a real chore. But this was not just something I was hired to do — it was something I really loved.”
Despite being privy to the cogs in the machinery — Rupe's passion was only enhanced by the experience.
“It's the weirdest thing,” he says. “Even knowing how certain things were done, it doesn't ruin it for me. It's the simplicity. These [illusions] are so complicated, yet they're not. In some cases, you literally have things being pulled on strings. It's the way it's presented, lit and performed — and the emotional resonance that is given that makes it so strong.”
“It's difficult to translate something that's very much about being in the room,” says Teller, who co-directed the film, having shaped Rupe's raw footage into a finished product.
“Shade was our hero on this,” Teller says.
While the filmmaker cops to having certain misgivings about things he could have done, he is proud of the final collaboration.
“It's one of those things,” Rupe says. “You can look in the mirror in the morning, and think, 'Oh, my hair is a mess and this and that,' and then you go outside and everyone's like, 'You look fantastic!'”
While few outside of present company would deem demonic ghouls and accredited cannibals as “looking fantastic,” audience response to “Play Dead,” the film, has been sensational.
“They really get into the spirit of the piece,” Teller says.
In fact, the only complaint Rupe has fielded from viewers is their subsequent desire to, now, see the show live.
Revivals of the stage show are in constant talks. In the works, but yet unconfirmed, are engagements in London's West End, Toronto and Los Angeles. In the meantime, scattered film screenings have been introducing new fans to this inspired bit of Grand Guignol.
“This will only be the second screening with all three of us present,” Rupe says of Thursday's AFI Silver event. “And those are really the ones to go to. When you get [Teller and Robbins] together, it's like Madonna and Lady GaGa Jell-O wrestling in front of you.”
Well, maybe not Jell-O.
But there will be blood.