Robbins is essentially a cross between an old-time Southern minister and Vincent Price, presiding over a macabre smörgåsbord of ghoulish props. With his careful intonation and quick wit, Robbins is able to play off the fears and sense of humor of the audience members to chilling comedic effect.
The entire show is dark, save for various lights around the stage; even the exit signs are off. At the beginning, Robbins dramatically turns over an hour glass and announces that if anyone wishes to leave, he or she may do so any time before the sands complete their fall. After that, the doors are loudly locked, and the audience is immersed in utter darkness and - for a time - quiet.
Robbins is a master showman. He's surrounded by office-supply boxes labeled with the names of various characters. He notes that each box contains remnants of that person's life, and the story he tells is true. Each tale leads into a visceral interpretation of that character - good or not so good - and how their evil or goodness will soon infiltrate each audience member.
Oh, and did I mention that this is participatory theater? Now, I will not give away one set piece, one story. But I will say this: people get wet. People may get things thrown on them. The theater is completely dark; people are made to feel scared, but in a silly-scared sort of way. After all, they knew what they were getting into.
As the film audience, we are able to see the infrared recordings of the proceedings. Therefore although we ourselves don't feel a spray of liquid, we can see the audience reacting to same. It's a lot scarier than it sounds.
The stage version was directed by Teller of "Penn and" fame; the film itself was directed by Teller with Shade Rupe. You can see why someone like Teller would be enchanted by this sort of show. It's macabre, and it involves fun trickery and effects, just like his shows with Penn Jillette. In a Q and A after the movie's showing, Teller noted that sideshows and the like were tremendously popular at the onset of the 20th century but had begun to die out by the late twenties, when sound was added to movies. Live freak shows that included mediums, geeks, and other assorted freaks were a fascinating bit of Americana, at least an Americanized version of what had come over from the Old World.
Now, I enjoyed Play Dead, enjoyed it quite a bit. It's inventive, delirious and gleeful in its chase for chills and heart-stopping terror - and yet sweetened just enough by a welcoming host with a wry wit and a real sense of melodrama. I appreciated the message shown at the outset of the film, that the audience members were not stooges. Knowing that helped me to identify with them. Could have been anyone on that stage, could have been me. Robbins was masterful at working the crowd. They - and we - were his pawns, but only with our assent.