ARCHIVE: A Good Charlatan Holds a ‘Seance’ at TRTC

Originally published in the Asbury Park Press, September 8, 2007

1People of the Shore, beware: the man billed as “America’s Number One Conman” has arrived in town for an extended visit — and from here until Halloween you’d be well advised to check your watch, count your silverware, and be especially alert to tall, affable, well-dressed strangers who wager the price of a drink that they can do the seemingly impossible with bottle caps, cue balls and cocktail napkins.

Meet Todd Robbins, “deceptionist extraordinaire” and a man who’s been hailed as a “god” by no less a pair of authorities than Penn and Teller. In fact, according to Aaron Posner of Two River Theater Company, it was “silent partner” Teller — soon to collaborate with Two River on a much-anticipated production of “Macbeth” — who brought the peculiar talents of Todd Robbins to the attention of the Red Bank-based professional stage company.

To be sure, the self-proclaimed “post-modern master of the sideshow” is a familiar sight to anyone who’s frequented the planks of the Coney Island boardwalk, having honed his chops as a sideshow performer for years — doing everything from swallowing swords and driving nails up his nose, to providing piano accompaniment for silent screen comedies. He’s also guested on all of the major late-night talk shows, created a series of instructional DVDs on the fine points of pranks, cons and bar tricks (“You’ll never pay for a drink again”) and appeared regularly on The History Channel as an expert in the grift, the scam, the flim and, you guessed it, the flam.

This is to say nothing of his tenure as ringmaster with the Big Apple Circus, his membership in Woody Allen’s jazz combo, his off-Broadway shows and corporate lectures — but you get the point: Robbins is, in Posner’s words, “a unique impresario who has spent his career exploring the fringes, cul-de-sacs, sideshows and backrooms of performance.”

Robbins, who shares a name with the author of the story that became the cult-classic film “Freaks,” has also been a passionate proponent for the preservation of Coney sideshow tradition in an age of encroaching condo-ization. In Monmouth County, where many of the honkytonk haunts of the beloved boardwalks have been supplanted by luxury residences and upscale commerce, this “true connoisseur of the magical, the mystical and the macabre” has conjured up something special for the local audience, something never before seen, and it goes by the name “The Charlatan’s Séance.”

Initiating its month-long world premiere run on Tuesday and continuing through October (with a special witching-hour Halloween performance), “The Charlatan’s Séance” (an expansion of his 2005 show “Dark Deceptions”) is being described as “a chilling participatory thrill ride;” a “scary exposé that demystifies the séance while seducing audiences right back into a haunting disbelief.”

In updating an all too traditional American art form — the amazing things that occur when the slickly “spiritual” meets the free-spendingly gullible — the proud Charlatan aims to debunk our often poignant impulse to seek contact with the Other Side, even as he and his crew (scenic designer William Barclay, lighting director Tyler Micoleau and sound designer Zachary Williamson) do their damnedest to scare the pants off their guests with a barrage of noises, apparitions and pouncing poltergeists. The show, presented in the Two River Theater’s black-box Marion Huber space, is scheduled for 34 performances and is not being recommended for audience members under the age of 13 (the midnight shows on October 27 and 31 are open only to those 18 years and older).

As a special treat for séance attendees, Two River Theater has created an all-new lobby coffee shop for the duration of the show. Gazoonie’s Caffeine Fix will purvey coffee and desserts to patrons before, between and after shows, with live acoustic music by local artists and a recreated 1940s-vintage fortune telling device available for consultation at all times.