Mindplay, Kogod Cradle, Arena Stage, Washington, DC


Vinny DePonto in Mindplay at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theatre. Photo by Chris Ruggerio.

Vinny DePonto’s bio in the playbill for Mindplay, the current offering in the Kogod Cradle at Arena Stage, lists him as the production’s creator, playwright, and performer, then sums up what it is that he does: “The work of theatre-maker and mentalist Vinny DePonto uses a combination of psychological tricks, visual art, and immersive storytelling.”

A program note begins, “The mind is a funny place. And it is. A place, that is.” The Kogod Cradle is a warm, cocoon-like space, the perfect location for DePonto to lead his audience through an exploration of our memories and our minds. And, because of its dependence on the participation of a specific audience, each performance will be different. Over the course of approximately 80 minutes, DePonto demonstrates a kind of magic that goes beyond sleight-of-hand (though there is that as well) into what we might call sleight-of-mind, delving into his own memories of ice cream trucks and spinach cans, while leading us to delve into ours. About a dozen members of this one-performance-only community of audience members have the opportunity to participate as the immersive experience unfolds. Because he comes across in an unthreatening manner, the space seems “safe,” and his manipulation, which he readily admits, is accepted.

Vinny DePonto and the ice cream truck in Mindplay at Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Jeff Lorch.

DePonto and playwright Josh Koenigsberg have created the shell of a performance that engages us in unusual ways, under the direction of Andrew Neisler. While “mentalist” conjures such images as a crystal-ball-gazing fortune teller, DePonto comes across as sincere, empathic, humble, and kindly, meekly demonstrating his considerable talents and sense of humor. It would be fascinating to return for another performance to see what a different audience might bring.

The initial setting for the show – a desk, a rotary telephone, a carousel slide projector (DePonto explains to younger audience members what those items are), and a backdrop with “What’s on your mind?” written on it – is deceptively simple. Later, however, Sibyl Wickersheimer’s marvelously symbolic scenery design and Pablo Santiago’s lighting designs underscore the components of the mind.

Vinny DePonto (center) with two audience members in Mindplay at Arena Stage at eh Mead Center for American Theatre. Photo by Chris Ruggerio.

I don’t know – and probably shouldn’t know – how he does what he does. I can, however, appreciate an honest performer giving a performance that charms and entertains, taking the audience to a place it has never been. Indeed, Mindplay will play with your mind, as well as preoccupy it for several days thereafter, thus proving itself “good theatre.” Mindplay continues at Arena Stage through March 3.


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