It might seem somewhat macabre to write about death and evil at this celebratory time of year. But there’s a terrific show, “Play Dead,” onstage at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood that makes these subjects both entertaining and edifying.
You’ve probably heard of Penn and Teller, but I bet you’ve never heard Teller speak (he’s the silent one). Instead of the usual “turn off your cellphone” pre-show announcements, we hear Teller, who co-wrote and directs “Play Dead,” tell us that screaming is encouraged, that staying seated in the dark (and it does get completely dark) will prevent you from being killed, and that “We are never so alive as when we’re scared to death.” (And by the way, as a former radio person myself, I can tell you that Teller has a gently resonant voice, one I’d love to hear more of in future.)
With that as prelude, we’re in the amazingly capable hands of performer and co-writer Todd Robbins. Dressed in a white suit, which will shortly become bloodied, he’s surrounded by a cluttered carnival-esque collection of death masks, a caged mannequin, a neon “Jesus Saves” sign, a subtly shifting portrait of a beautiful woman, a noose, boxes with names, birth and death dates on them and other quirky oddities.
We quickly learn that he is here to entertain, scare and warn us against the evils committed by tricksters, phonies and psychics, all of which he then proceeds to execute on the astounded audience. Although he does actually eat a glass light bulb. Really.
It is hard to believe your eyes when the tricks he plays unfold onstage, and since we reviewers are on our honor not to reveal the surprises, I’ll just hint at what you can expect.
A member of the audience will disappear in a brass coffin before your very eyes, a painting will come to life, and a séance table will lift, shake and rattle under the hands of two astonished volunteers. We’ll also witness the disemboweling of yet another unsuspecting audience member.
Robbins tells the true stories of a Brooklyn serial killer; a Coney Island sideshow performer (who bites the heads off chickens); a former neighbor of his in Long Beach whose deep faith could not save her from being murdered; and a very sexy spirit medium who entranced her followers with messages from the great beyond.
Throughout you will scream, laugh and be both tickled and chilled by ghostly lighting effects, a rain of spiders, indefinable things brushing by you in the dark … in other words, you’ll have one “hell” of a good time. As Robbins concludes, “The theatre is the one holy place where everything is false.”
Visit www.geffenplayhouse.com or call (310) 208-5454 for details; “Play Dead” runs through Dec. 22.
Santa Monica Playhouse often hosts guest productions, and I’ll be attending one this weekend called “Jamaica, Farewell.”
This one-woman show appears at the Playhouse for occasional short runs and is in town this weekend for three performances only.
“Jamaica, Farewell” is written and performed by Jamaican actress Debra Ehrhardt, who tells us the story of how she risked her life to escape poverty, revolution, prison time and rape in an island paradise brought to the brink of ruin by violent political revolution.
An immigrant who beats overwhelming odds to get to America, she shares her determination and ingenuity as she takes us on her true-life journey, fleeing the underside of Jamaican life, and audaciously hoodwinking a CIA agent into helping her achieve her American dream.
Rita Wilson (the acclaimed actress and spouse of Oscar-winner Tom Hanks) has optioned the movie rights to “Jamaica, Farewell,” which has been on a critically lauded five-year run internationally and across the U.S.
On Saturday, Nov. 30, there are two performances, at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. and just one on Sunday, Dec. 1 at 6 p.m. The show returns to Santa Monica Playhouse in February.
Find out more at www.jamaicafarewelltheplay.com or call Santa Monica Playhouse box office at (310) 394-9779, ext. 1.
For the young ones
Los Angeles Children’s Theater presents its first Children’s Theatre Festival for the holiday season, with magical and musical stage adaptations of “The Velveteen Rabbit” and “Pinocchio.”
“The Velveteen Rabbit (or How Toys Become Real)” tells the beloved tale of a stuffed rabbit and his quest to become real through the love of his owner. Inspired by and closely following Margery Williams’ original story, LACT’s production explores the theme of how love creates a lifelong relationship with toys, friends, and family and makes such relationships “real.”
“Velveteen Rabbit” includes a cast of mimes, clowns, robots, and toy horses, rabbits, china dolls, and a variety of other characters. Music, creative movement, wonderful animal costumes, magical effects, and interaction with the audience makes this show a “must see” for children aged 3 and up.
“Pinocchio” is also a story about love, but is told through the eyes and ears of a puppet who wants to be a “real” boy and his ever-present conscience Cricket. Inspired by the original Disney animated film and adapted from Carlo Collodi’s original novel, LACT’s “Pinocchio” is a world premiere that includes a naïve and mischievous puppet, Pinocchio; a kind and gentle wood carver, Geppetto; a slick talking Fox; a mime; Blue Fairy, and a host of puppets. With memorable songs, awe-inspiring magical effects, and continuous interaction with the audience, this is also “must see” show.
It all takes place at The Little Theater, an intimate 49-seat venue at 12420 Santa Monica Blvd. on the West Los Angeles/Santa Monica border. Tickets are available online at www.theblackboxtheater.org. The festival opens Dec. 7 and runs through Jan. 5.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.