Robin Leach

Teller talks(!) and discusses his new macabre Play Dead at The Rio

Todd Robbins and Charlotte Pines.
Photo: Thom Kaine

Shock and awe with intense suspense and a lot of blood thrown in for good measure are in store for audiences at magic master Teller’s Play Dead, his new theatrical thrill ride to hell and back when it debuts this Sunday night at The Rio.

“Audiences will definitely be scared out of their pants,” Teller told me and confirmed that Play Dead producers have installed safety systems, as most of the disturbing physical and psychological drama takes place in the dark. “They will scream, yet also laugh. Naked demons come to life raised from the dead, so that bizarre experience alone will shock.”

Teller broke his usual stage silence from his nine-year Penn & Teller headliner show at The Rio to reveal in a one-on-one interview some of the darkest secrets behind his new show. I didn’t channel Teller. I didn’t sit side by side with him to think my questions and he thought the answers, but since he rarely talks and only to guests after his regular show, I still can’t be sure 100 percent that it was really him. That alone added to the darkness of our conversation.

Play Dead will be performed from Sunday through Sept. 24 in the Calypso Room at The Rio before an off-Broadway run that begins next month in New York. It’s the first time an original Broadway show has been created, developed and gets its pre-Manhattan mojo running in Las Vegas, and that makes Teller very proud.

Teller presents Penn Jillette's severed ponytail at The Rio Spa & Salon on Aug. 25, 2010.

Teller presents Penn Jillette's severed ponytail at The Rio Spa & Salon on Aug. 25, 2010.

Penn and Teller at the Human Rights Campaign Gala at Paris Las Vegas on Aug. 28, 2010.

Penn and Teller at the Human Rights Campaign Gala at Paris Las Vegas on Aug. 28, 2010.

Robin Leach: Just how macabre and frightening is this show?

Teller: Here is what our producer has told us. “You go as scary as you can possibly manage. If it’s too scary, I will pull you back.” So part of what we’re doing in Las Vegas starting Sunday for two weeks is experimenting with exactly how scary we can go.

RL: In Vegas, you can probably be a lot scarier than off-Broadway.

T: That might be true, but you know, audiences in New York and audiences in Vegas are not really that different. There are certain differences, but the fundamental experiences of being in a darkened room full of people and the unknown is about to happen is pretty primal. There are three sections in the show in which that happens. One is sort of an experiment to see how wild people will get with one another when it’s darkness, and one that is absolutely a classic, sort of a seance that you would see in a motion picture, and then the third one is a summary of the show in which all the darker characters re-emerge in the darkness quite piercingly, I’ll warn.

There is a great American experience that’s called the midnight ghost show or spook show. The idea was in the old days that when the midnight movies were no longer running in a movie house, some crazed magician type had a show with wild audience participation involving beheading and such. He would come in and do this crazy wild show. Teenagers would take their dates, and they would be plunged into the darkness. They would be so scared, they would laugh and grope each other in the dark. The real fundamental impulse of this is when you get scared, and you know it’s not real because you’re in a theater, when you get scared, you scream, you laugh, and that brings you to life.

It truly makes for a sexy rush. You know, all of those kids who go to cemeteries and think they’re doing something ever so naughty by making out on tombstones. They are responding to the same basic impulse that we’re responding to in doing the show.

RL: Has Play Dead frightened you? Has Todd Robbins frightened you, or have you frightened Todd?

T: In every single case, we try to put ourselves in the position as to what would scare me at this moment, and that’s most often doing less than doing more. The set for the show is an empty brick backstage. It sort of looks like your classic crazy collector’s basement full of file boxes, full of strange and dark stories, and Todd uses the contents of these boxes to tell some of the stories.

At one point, he was telling a story of Albert Fish, who you may recall was a very well-known child murderer and cannibal in New York, and we realized we were telling his story in such detail that it crossed over from being frightening to being merely repulsive. It’s a very difficult balance, so they suggest just enough so that you’re drawn into them. You fill in the gaps with your own nightmares. We’re trying to do dreadfully hideous things in perfect taste.

RL: Do you think people will go away with nightmares?

T: No, they will go away with joy! During the show, I hope they will scream and clutch their dates and burst into that sort of wild nervous laughter, that when somebody comes up behind you and goes “boo!” And you turn around to see who it is, and it’s your friend and then you both laugh. That’s the feeling that I want them to leave with, I want them to have that exhilaration. You’re never more alive than when you’re scared to death.

The other place that this comes from is when Todd was younger on Friday nights when the moon was full, he and his friends would drive out to the Long Beach Cemetery in New York and park their cars so that the cops wouldn’t know they were all in the same place. He would lead them down the old stone steps into the cemetery, and they would spread out their blankets. They would make up stories about these people. You get all those feelings, the groans coming from that cemetery when they left were not the groans of the dead.

Todd Robbins is flanked by Charlotte Pines and Geri Berman.

Todd Robbins is flanked by Charlotte Pines and Geri Berman.

Todd Robbins and Geri Berman.

Todd Robbins and Geri Berman.

Todd Robbins and Geri Berman.

Todd Robbins and Geri Berman.

RL: How long has this show been eating at you?

T: It came from two different directions. Todd began an early version of the show about four or five years ago and wound up performing it at the same theater in New Jersey last year where I did my dark magic version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. So I got to see Play Dead there. He and I began talking, and we realized that we were both interested in the old spirit mediums.

The best word to use is evil to describe the current crop of spirit mediums and dead talkers. You can come to that two ways: You can debunk it and show people how it works, but showing people how it works is not like drawing them into it, making it personable and scaring the sh*t out of them. Even in a theater when you know it’s false, it can still get to you. We will scare you like that!

RL: How interactive is the show with the audience?

T: I only directed and wrote the show; I’m don’t appear in it. Todd does the one-man stage show, but audience members come onto the stage and, seated out in the darkness, the audience will see and feel things. This is 3-D theater! This provides sensations that a mere movie would not. Todd is funny; there is a charming Alfred Hitchcock, a wicked humor that underlies everything that he does. Even if he were to bring a genuine audience member onstage and apparently murder the person before the eyes of the audience, people would be giggling.

We have 10 shows over the course of the next 12 days. The Rio has been an amazing host for our show. We’re working in the room that used to be the Tony & Tina’s Big Italian Wedding theater there. We’ve cut it down to the exact size the theater in New York will be. We are the very first show that has done a pre-New York run in Las Vegas. Out-of-town runs are normally in Connecticut or San Diego, or somewhere like that. This is the first time that we’ve really seen that kind of movement, and I think it’s a good step for Vegas to start to be seen as a place that doesn’t just take old New York material and recycle it here, but actually creates material and moves to the theater center of the universe.

RL: How long have the two of you been working on this before the opening this weekend?

T: There are several phases of this. I got onboard with Todd about two years ago. We started writing and revising his original version. We got it to the point where somebody who loved the movie Evil Dead came to us afterward and said, “Man, this was better than Evil Dead.” We moved away from the terminology of ghosts and spirits to just say “the dead.”

We owe a huge part of that to George Romero. Our first workshop with just 30 minutes of material done here at The Rio was very promising, and we got a lot of New York producers onboard. Another week’s run at the Clarion here just off-Strip, which used to be the Greek Isles in Debbie Reynolds’ old screening room, a spooky place to begin with padded gray velvet walls like a giant casket, went even better. We had a lot of great reactions to that and learned a lot about the structure of the show. We restructured the show for this run starting Sunday, and we’ve been technical prepping it for about three months. We’re now ending two weeks of rehearsals and then have the two weeks of performances before heading to New York for previews mid-October, and then the official show opens there Nov. 10.

RL: How many people are in the cast?

T: Todd is the only one I’ll own up to. However, I can’t say that there won’t be some resurrected dead.

RL: Will you go to New York? Or will you commute back and forth while continuing your own Rio show with Penn?

T: I am working with a Canadian associate director, Jim Millan. We sharing the burden of both here and New York, but in New York, he will do most of the rehearsal, and because of my Rio schedule, I will fly in every Thursday, see the show that night, work with Todd and the gang on Friday, see it Friday, and then fly back Saturday for our weekend shows.

It’s a pretty strenuous haul, but I’ve been passionate about this. As a kid, I grew up on Alfred Hitchcock and The Twilight Zone and always wanted to do something like that, but nobody ever really pulls it off in the theater. I think the people who tried before didn’t have sufficient background in magic, and that is part of the art of creating the supernatural giddy thrill ride to hell and back.

RL: You are known as an offbeat, eccentric magician, and this is bizarre magic in a sense but still a complete departure for you?

T: It is. It’s magical because you create something that’s not real, but it’s very, very effective and appears to be supernatural when you’re watching. The Penn & Teller Show is very grounded in reality. At the show, you’re constantly reminded that you’re in a theater watching two guys do magic -- very American and reality-based.

Play Dead is also reality-based, but we really are trying our best to give you the best experience of stuff that looks supernatural. We’re not in any way doing the mentalist thing, with claims to read minds when you know they can’t. One of the things Todd says is “What I’m about to say contains some truth, and it contains some lies,” but you need to believe and trust me for the next hour and 15 minutes just so you can have the terror creep over your faces like cob webs draped across your skin.

RL: How further deep and dark is this than when we goof around on the strip every Oct. 31?

T: On The Strip, the Halloween haunted houses are neither witty nor have a larger sense of meaning behind it. This is structured like a play. It’s taking place here and now in the theater. It is a dramatic series of events. It’s horror and the dead in playful ways, and then troubling ways. Put together, they should provide a strange joy.

RL: If the level of horror is that intense, are you going to have an Emergency Medical Services staffed ambulance on hand?

T: People have done that, but I always find it a little bit cheesy. We will not be doing that, but because this does involve being in the dark, we have in place a set of absolute secure safety measures. Everyone, although they may feel in peril, they are well taken care of. We are very meticulous about the safety measures. You need to know you’re safe.

Although the language of the show is OK, there is some full nudity and a lot of blood. It is not a show that I would send children to; it is strictly a show “not for children.” Todd is remarkable in Play Dead, and I am hoping that this show allows him to be the star that he deserves. I believe there is a very large audience for this, and nobody has ever really had it like this before. As our producer likes to say, “This is a ticket they haven’t bought yet.”

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