(Conning soon in a theatre near you)
Between them, the cast members of Hoodwinked have over one hundred and twenty years of experience, and it totally shows. However, this would not be one of my reviews if I didn't snarkily type in at least one controversial point to spark the flurry of enraged comments I have come to love so much (mostly for driving me more easily into the liquor bottle), so don't worry. We'll get there.
Hoodwinked was produced by Michael Mills of Mills Entertainment and co-produced by BASE Entertainment. I assume Michael Mills is an evil genius that sits in the back room of the theatre in a swivel chair, stroking a cat trained to kill (whose name, in my mind, is Mr. Winklepants), cackling maniacally to himself. I assume this because the show manages, even after seeing it twice as I have, to shock and surprise me, and ensure my eyes never leave the stage.
Hoodwinked seems to be the type of show that one attends blindly, expecting the same sort of stage magic that has caused doves to hail down like feathered missiles in theatres around the world for hundreds of years. If you expected that, prepare to be proven wrong.
The show consists of four entertainers – Bob Arno, pickpocket; Todd Robbins, The King of New York Con Men; Richard Turner, card mechanic; and Banachek, psychological manipulator. And when the four men first hit the stage grinning and pointing at the audience, you get the sensation that the people around you might be rolling their eyes and wondering if the cast is going to try and sell them a used car.
And because of this sentiment, ha ha, they leave themselves so very vulnerable.
The show is divided into segments designed for each of the entertainers, so that you are, in effect, getting a little mini-show or two from each of them. Todd Robbins (who you may have seen at TAM) introduces you, during each segment, to one of his "friends" - a con artist that will more than likely leave you standing on stage, in a cloud of embarrassment, wondering where your wallet has gone.
"We operate very much like a real crew," Robbins said, "... First, the roper, who turns them over to the inside men. The others do the heavy lifting."
Robbins is a smooth talker, hilarious, and has a stroke of evil that makes one wonder if he has his own swivel chair as well, and he relaxes the audience with a jokey trick on a volunteer that may include peanuts. Or possibly coins.
No matter what he does, though, he charms the audience into feeling safe; like his antics are those of a kindly gentleman who has offered to play you a game of fifty-two pickup.
His knowledge of 'real crews,' however, made me a little nervous.
"You never conned anyone?" I asked, wondering if I should be re-checking my wallet.
"Well, I'm not saying THAT," Robbins said with a laugh. I eyed my purse, and managed to restrain myself from checking the contents.
Robbins has been involved with deception for years, and was interested in more than just how tricks were done. He was introduced to the world of carnivals and circuses, and his talents include the ability to eat a light bulb, and to hammer nails into his nose.
I asked him if he had ever hurt himself doing either, and he said he had been "pretty lucky." I checked to make sure he only has two nostrils, and have to say I agree.
Robbins has an unparalleled enthusiasm for the fun of his job, which is illustrated by his willingness to share the joke with everyone.
"I started putting a TV project together a number of years ago about con artists," he said, "... we ended up doing three DVDs of how to scam your friends."
This caught my attention, as I have a sincere interest in scamming my friends, and the first DVD is called How to Win a Free Beer. Of course, I asked for details.
"People spend a lot of money for a unique experience," he said, and then went on to tell me about one scam that involves a peanut, a bar, and beer, glorious beer. Since my enthusiasm to share this information is tempered by the fact that I plan to scam you all into buying me beers at the next TAM, I won't be sharing. But if you buy the DVDs, you can see for yourself.
After Robbins softened the audience up a bit, Bob Arno took the stage.
When I first heard that one of the entertainers in Hoodwinked was a pickpocket, I wasn't all that impressed. So, some guy was going to take wallets off some idiots in the audience. Big deal. I can now safely say that I was completely wrong, and that any time Arno is within fifty feet of me, I will constantly be looking down to make sure I'm still wearing pants (even though, thankfully, he never removed any from anyone).
"We are giving a very edgy show," Arno said.
Yeah, no kidding.
I believe, absolutely, that Bob Arno can steal anything off anyone. He started out as a journalist with an interest in conniving arts, and branched out into entertainment. He has worked with law enforcement for eighteen years, has caught pickpockets around the world on video, investigates identity theft, and works in corporate security. He has, in other words, all the experience required to be a very, very bad man.
And yet, he isn't. One of the things that is so compelling about Hoodwinked is that it is a series of individuals who have the ability to lie, cheat, manipulate, and steal from everyone. They all have the components of criminal masterminds, and yet they choose to take the stage instead of robbing us rubes, and show us how it's done. And, speaking to each of them, you might discover that they find the very idea of doing so distasteful.
Arno said that on Saturday morning, on the way to NBC Studios for an interview with the Weekend Today Show, he was unhappy to see at least five tarot card and/or fortune telling facilities within two blocks "even though it [fortune telling] is a very deceitful practice." When he said this, it was with an air of calm nobility, as though he was talking about people who pick their noses in public.
But Arno is not as calm about it as you would suppose from his demeanor. He has a blog called "Thiefhunters in Paradise," where he exposes con men and scam artists, and discusses all sorts of fascinating things like redflagging – isolating behavior that deviates from the norm and drawing conclusions from it. He is, without doubt, out to educate, and believes Hoodwinked is an extension of that.
"Every single one of the four entertainers will touch on information that you have seen on the front page," he said. These might include breaches of medical records, identity theft, and fakes and frauds of every variety.
And we are slyly being educated throughout the course of the show. When swiping every possible item off his volunteers on the stage, Arno makes sure the audience can see what has happened – even if we aren't quite positive how he did it. And while guiltily laughing at the man who has just had his suspenders secretly commandeered, we are also thinking of ways to be safer in the future. And learning to keep touching our pockets if anywhere near Bob Arno.
Next to take the stage is Banachek, who, from his wonderful performances at TAM, many of us have already come to know and love. And yet no matter how many times I see him on a stage, I still find myself wondering "What the hell just happened?" when the psychological manipulation takes hold.
And it will take hold of you, too.
It is no surprise at all that Banachek is able to perform the feats he does; like yanking the mere thought of a card out of a volunteer's brain – at the tender age of eighteen, he was already, under the tutelage of James Randi, fooling scientists into believing he had psychic abilities.
I think most of the audience sort of believed it as well. In the entire rest of the show, the audience was fairly silent outside of laughter and hooting and gasps of surprise. During Banachek's portion, however, I could hear people in the audience saying, "That is so fake."
Well, of course it's fake. That's kind of the point. But I think what they meant was that his "illusion of a sixth sense" is so impressive they simply could not come up with an explanation for what was happening outside of, "He must know all those volunteers personally."
And, though I do believe that Banachek would go pretty far to manipulate his audience, I find the idea that he's chartering twenty people around the country kind of difficult to believe.
But wasn't he ever tempted to use his abilities to become a new and improved Uri Geller?
"I guess it was because of Randi I didn't," he said, "... Also, I was a little upset when I found out it was all a hoax... I had wasted hours trying to bend a pin and convincing myself it was geniune."
Speaking of bending things...
Even if you have seen Banachek's show before, Hoodwinked offers new manipulations; new craftiness. And there was a fun addition that I hadn't seen before and really liked, which I have termed "XXXTREME MTLBNDING," and involves twelve inch long steel spikes.
"It's different; it's unique," Banachek said, "Normally when I go onstage, I have a million things in my pockets."
When he said this, I of course wondered WHAT he had in his pockets, but I was too polite to ask.
But won't he miss performing alone?
"I've been doing the same stuff for years and years," he said, "and now I get to be creative."
Hoodwinked isn't about one person trying to get the attention of the audience – it's about working together and creating a whole.
It's also about being completely entranced by the work of people who are so skilled that the amount they practice makes me wonder if they all suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Particularly Richard Turner, "The Cheat."
Richard Turner started working with cards at the age of seven, and has never stopped. He figured out ways of controlling the outcome of a game, and by the age of twenty-one was dealing seconds, centers, and bottoms. Which are terms that made no sense to me before seeing Hoodwinked, but I'm going to start using them in casual conversation as I like the sound of "I'm dealing my bottom."
During the show, he was able to (using volunteer shuffled decks) deal winning hands in Stud, Hold 'Em, and Blackjack to a position chosen by the volunteers. He also cut cards to a point of their choosing with no hesitation. He is scarily accurate.
I would think that being The Cheat would make everyone afraid of you, and that it would be hard to ever have your friends over for Poker Night, but Turner was lucky in that he had a close friend and mentor, sleight-of-hand master Dai Vernon.
And it turns out that people aren't that afraid of playing cards with Turner – when he worked on a riverboat, people were always approaching him, out of an apparent need to get rid of their money as quickly as possible, for games.
"Some people just wanted to say they got Beat by The Cheat," Turner said.
But these weren't people dropping ten bucks on a game. "Could they not find a slot machine?" I wondered to myself, "Why would they do that?"
Turner smiled. "They're so stupid," he said. But it wasn't in a malicious way. It was with the tone of someone who knows their level of skill which, in his case, is like being The God of Cards.
After talking to him, it's no wonder. He has dealt seconds forty-three million times in practice alone. I didn't say anything, but was internally shocked that in addition to spending that much time (14 hours per day) practicing, he had also counted every deal. Additionally, his son is named Asa Spades. Seriously. I asked Asa if his name was a good thing or a bad one and, thankfully, he said "A good one."
Turner wasn't content to only be the most blatantly awesome person on the planet when it came to cards. He went out and became a master of something else as well – martial arts. He holds a fifth-degree black belt in karate.
"I loved the adrenaline rush," he said, "I would get on a ten-story building... and hold myself out [from a pole] horizontal to the ground... with only the strength of my arms."
It's probably a good thing, too. Once, when he was working at Billy Bob's in Ft. Worth, Texas, an angry card player pulled a gun on him.
When I imagine the scene that ensued, it's sort of like those parts in Looney Tunes cartoons when the Tasmanian Devil gets caught up with another character.
I have this deep, internal hope that Hoodwinked will eventually combine Turner's talents, so that in addition to XXXTREME MTLBNDING we'll also have XXXTREME POKER, wherein Turner will cheat the volunteers and, if they lose, leap to his feet and beat their asses.
Turner, by the way, is blind. And he can beat you at cards a million times in a row (and will probably count each one of the times) and then, I imagine, kill a man with his pinky.
So, that's Hoodwinked for you. An amazing show with an amazing cast. A group so skilled that if it's anywhere near you, you should go see it. Not just because it's so much fun, but because you will probably never, in your entire life, ever see another group of people so dedicated, so masterful, and so kind.
But if you do go, check afterwards and make sure you're still wearing your pants.
HOODWINKED: 5 out of 5 stars.
Skeptical Further Reading (and Watching):
The Modern Con Man by Todd Robbins
Psychological Subtleties 2 by Banachek
A ton of DVDs about cards by Richard Turner