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Theater Review: Two Mind-blowing Shows (One Involving Charlie Chaplin — or Parts of Him)

James Thiérrée — grandson of Chaplin, great-grandson of Eugene O'Neill — in Raoul.

The wind bites shrewdly, the mercury dips, and the circus has quietly slipped into town, in the form of two uniquely spooky shows, one haunted, one haunting, both centered on a single, singular performer — and both extrapolated from carny DNA. And let’s just skip the tiresome “but is it theater?” debate, shall we? We’re not big on litmus tests over here at Stage Dive. Beyond that: When a man eats a lightbulb for your wincing, squirming pleasure, you'll follow him anywhere.

The man is Todd Robbins, whose website bills him as "the world's foremost purveyor of reality at its most amazing," and the show is Play Dead, a barely narrative harum-scarum divertimento that never forgets its sideshow roots — the gooses come in gaggles and fake blood flows plentifully. (The script is by Teller, of Penn &, who also directs.) Holding court in a dapper white suit amid the spectral dilapidation of the Players Theatre, Robbins, with help from his mostly-invisible company of assistants and a nightly selection of unlucky audience “volunteers” (no plants, no foolin’), doesn’t perform death-defying acts. He’s more into the death-embracing kind — appropriate for a guy who got his start as a Coney Island illusionist and sideshow performer. After a little throat-clearing and bulb-munching to set the mayhem bar high, Robbins takes us through a catalogue of real-life rogues, fiends, and frauds, i.e., “the dead I carry inside me.” Along the way, he stages a seance, appears to murder an audience member or two, and cuts all the lights more than once, the better to screw with us. The witty wisp of a script aside, this is high-end dinner-theater stuff — only done so damned well you’ll feel it deep in your tube-steak for days to come. Robbins is a consummate showman, with that perfect honest-huckster’s blend of purring charisma and glittering contempt for his crowd. (He seems to be able to wrangle even the most rambunctious audiences — which is fortunate, given he’s situated at the intersection of every bridge-and-tunnel bar crawl.)

Robbins overarching theme (beyond the usual, healthy hatred of psychics and predatory spiritualists preached by every proud Houdinist) is a respect for the tantalizing, fortifying finality of death, the great humanizing force that binds us. Likewise, James Thiérrée, a performer with an absurdly glorious pedigree (grandson of Charlie Chaplin, great-grandson of Eugene O’Neill), dances a rubbery little jig on the very brink of oblivion in Raoul, his sui generis clown/puppet/dance/acrobatic/mime show now playing at BAM. As a man (Raoul) literally at odds with himself (also Raoul, a doubling accomplished via a series of brilliant switch-offs), Thiérrée is his own abused puppet: He may be Chaplin’s blood, but he’s got Keaton’s gift for self-flagellation. He hurls himself around a fast-collapsing set made of chattering steel pipe and driftwood, which itself seems to have a mind of its own. He has a child’s sense of play and a triple-jointed body, water-walking in a slo-mo temporal eddy one moment, streaking up a wall the next. Just when you think Thiérrée’s hit a blind alley, he turns the world he’s created on end and shoots off again on a new vector. (His only stage companions, other than himself, are a series of uncanny animal puppets.) But Raoul is so much more than a series of stunts: Thiérrée’s rag-doll body and his struggle to preserve the eroding crab shell he’s built around it accrete meaning as the night tumbles on, gradually writing a wordless epic in the air. It’s old-fashioned French existentialism set to the rhythms of supercharged parkour. Without any help from Bono, Julie Taymor, or the New York Board of Labor Safety, Thiérrée performs an unforgettable cirque du solitaire, thrilling, hilarious, terrifying, and mysterious, but never obscure.

Photo: Richard Termine