Review | Arena Stage’s ‘Mindplay’ tries to get inside your head

Vinny DePonto’s affinity for analog is readily apparent throughout “Mindplay,” the mentalist’s spotty but ultimately enthralling feat of mind-probing prowess now at Arena Stage. A rotary phone rings to open the show, egging on an unsuspecting audience member to step onstage and answer. A slide projector offers an unlikely insight into another patron’s memory. And DePonto uses a cassette player to broadcast some of his own (not so) guarded anxieties.

That motif is fitting for a solo show — created and performed by DePonto and first staged in the fall of 2022 at Los Angeles’s Geffen Playhouse — about inspecting and understanding the mind’s wiring. In Arena Stage’s intimate Kogod Cradle, DePonto crosses audience-assisted exercises in mental trickery with a contemplative narrative about unraveling his own angst. While there were a couple of stumbles in the mind-cracking at Tuesday’s opening-night performance, and DePonto’s memory-piercing introspection doesn’t fully coalesce, “Mindplay” brings enough “How did he do that?” wonder to delight all the same.

Setting the stage for this exploration of how memories are formed, retained and compromised, DePonto welcomes his audience with a pointed prompt: “What’s on your mind?” In addition to being emblazoned across the stage curtain, the words appear on envelopes containing a card for theatergoers to fill out and drop in a fish bowl DePonto draws from throughout the show. (The performer takes a warm approach to patrons’ participation, but if you’re truly petrified of being called upon, just don’t submit your answer — or catch any objects floated into the audience.)

As DePonto clarifies off the bat, “Mindplay” is “unaided” — meaning that there are no actors or plants hidden among the crowd, and that the wire running up his neck is just a microphone and not an information-feeding earpiece. But DePonto does get a theatrical assist from Sibyl Wickersheimer’s set, which transforms from a lightly furnished office to an expansive maze of memory-unlocking safe-deposit boxes. With the help of Pablo Santiago’s dazzling lighting and Everett Elton Bradman’s crisp sound design, the interactive set becomes increasingly sentient, while splitting the difference between unnerving and amusing.

DePonto repeatedly impresses by plucking people from the audience, examining their minds via a couple of innocuous questions and revealing their thoughts with uncanny accuracy. Taking inspiration from Solomon Shereshevsky, a vaudevillian artist renowned for his powers of recollection, he rattles off entertaining mnemonic devices and uses a “memory palace” technique to recite Shakespeare on demand. And DePonto strikes a poignant chord when relaying the show’s emotional through line, of how the memory loss suffered by his grandparents drove him to sharpen his mind, even if those scripted segments feel out of tune with the performance’s more improvisatory elements.

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Under Andrew Neisler’s direction, DePonto also charms while weaving topical jabs at Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) and Elon Musk with dashes of quick wit and self-deprecation. (“Dating me sucks,” he quips after exposing one theatergoer’s subconscious.) Although his tricks tend be more cerebral and less illusional, DePonto does deliver a few mesmerizing bits of stage magic — including one particularly head-spinning stunt toward the end of the show.

DePonto (who co-wrote the show with Josh Koenigsberg) casually drops the most profound observation early on, when he sarcastically assures those fearful of his techniques that they can always step out early and return to an outside world free of such mental manipulation — alluding, of course, to the effects of advertising and other forces on our day-to-day decisions. For an intellectually driven magician, it’s fitting that the key to his most telling moment is a simple truth.

Mindplay, created and performed by Vinny DePonto, written by DePonto and Josh Koenigsberg. Directed by Andrew Neisler. Set, Sibyl Wickersheimer; lighting, Pablo Santiago; sound, Everett Elton Bradman. About 90 minutes. Through March 3 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW.

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