Teller gives magic new context in 'Play Dead'


Teller is putting on a horror show. The sweet, funny half of Penn & Teller wants to find out what happens in the dark corners of your imagination when someone flips out the lights. Even the "Exit" signs.

He and sideshow artist Todd Robbins concocted "Play Dead," a darkly comic magic show staged amid haunted house effects. The audience quickly learns there is no safe detachment from things that tickle your neck in the dark.

It's "a joyous but nerve-racking experience," Teller hopes. He co-wrote and directed the one-man (with a little help) showcase for Robbins, who channels Vincent Price in his charmingly malevolent stage banter.

But if you want to see it now, you must thumb a ride to New York. The title opens off-Broadway at the 248-seat Players Theatre on Oct. 21. Only a lucky few hundred -- who connected mostly through social media -- saw recent shakedown performances at the Rio.

Still, there are bragging rights to having an off-Broadway work developed here. Headliner Clint Holmes and the heirs of composer Harold Arlen are among those who also tapped local talent and resources to develop stage works with Broadway potential.

But this is the first one to get to the finish line, albeit with Teller's name guaranteeing attention.

"This show is a gift of Harrah's," Teller says of his open access to the Rio's warehouse venue that long hosted "Tony 'N' Tina's Wedding." In-kind services came with no strings attached; no promise "Play Dead" would come home to roost at the Rio.

As I drove home, adrenaline still pumping, I thought about whether it could even work in a casino. On one hand, it's what I've been wanting to see: magic reinvented in a creative new context, beyond tigers in boxes. But the distance to New York seems more in miles of context than content.

With time and patience, you could sell this show here. You could explain it, playing up what Teller calls the "spooky amusement" factor, as an October opening in New York will no doubt do.

But the very existence of "off-Broadway" gives the show a context; no need to explain it will be sophisticated and thoughtful in its own gory way: "You look in low places for high things," Teller says.

The producers pushed for major rewrites until real themes emerged. "As a kid, (Robbins) takes death as playful. As a grown-up, he realizes death is not a game," Teller notes. After three workshop incarnations in the past year, "This is a piece of theater now. This isn't just a collection of stunts."

There is still a great gulf between the handful of really good Vegas titles and all the other nudie revues and impersonators. Teller says it well when he says, "Even light entertainment needs a core of something serious."

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.