Penn & Teller

at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts, Oriental Theatre, through October 1

By Brian Nemtusak

A 1997 Atlantic Monthly article by the shorter, quieter half of this magic duo nicely captures their love for audacious fakery, often lost amid their deconstructions of the magician’s trade. Thoughtful and charming in print–Teller once taught high school Latin–he spins an ostensibly journalistic tale of an apparition scheduled to materialize at 2:10 PM in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum on June 3, 1997. Teller waits with other groupies–mystery writers, dandies, silver-haired bookworms–for the ghost of an obscure poet, known mostly for his appearance in a turn-of-the-century Max Beerbohm story that recounts two chats with “Enoch Soames” at a Soho cafe on June 3, 1897: one before the devil spirits him 100 years into the future, the other upon his grim-faced return later that afternoon. Soames sells his soul to see his place in literary history as gauged by the museum’s “all-knowing” catalog, but just before he’s dragged off to hell he tells Beerbohm the terrible truth: according to the catalog, Enoch Soames is “an imaginary character in a Max Beerbohm story.”

At 2:10 Soames, or a perfectly credible impostor, shows up–and though Teller is typically a debunker of this kind of thing, he writes, “Surely this is not a mere living person. He is either the specter of a nineteenth-century poet on his way to damnation or an actor putting the finishing touches on a great literary magic trick. Not to stare would be rude.”

Onstage, of course, Teller is famously silent or nearly so, a spellbinding performer equal parts Houdini and little tramp who conveys his intimate knowledge of the history and practice of magic solely through gesture, leaving the narration to his bigger, brasher partner, Penn Jillette, postmodern carnival barker on steroids. An entertaining if less careful writer himself (he had a column in PC Computing for a few years), Penn provides the ecstatic skepticism: as Teller executes apparently seamless deceptions, Penn caustically points out where the seams are. It’s still often impossible to catch Teller in the act, however, because Penn & Teller want to deceive you while telling you exactly how they’re doing their tricks. The “essential moment” of their form, Teller said in an interview, is “the moment of doubt…that very intense sensation of looking at something that looks for all the world like reality, and you know it’s not.”

When the pair met in 1974, Penn was a street-performing juggler in Philadelphia and Teller was still teaching Latin. Though he was proficient–in this show Penn tosses broken bottles–his heart wasn’t exactly in juggling, and not just because it looked like a slow road to the big time. “For the most part,” Penn told a juggling magazine, “with juggling you have someone being virtuosic about being virtuosic. They do something that has no content but they do it really, really well.” It seems magicians are so much worse they’re better. “Magicians are more despicable than jugglers,” Penn says. “All you’re really doing with magic is lying….That’s tension, that’s theatre, that’s Beckett.” Says Teller in a long Q & A, “Ultimately, I don’t have much interest in watching magic shows. The absolute and total absence of CONTENT troubles me as it does in most movies. An evening of loud and vapid special effects. Who cares? Sound and fury signifying nothing.”

Penn & Teller’s act does spring partly from a shared boredom with the cliches of performance. Their breakthrough occurred in 1982, when Teller started doing a cups-and-balls flimflam with transparent cups while Penn crowed about being banned by magicians’ groups for their treachery. But their antagonism to magicians is mostly phony, tailored (very successfully) for the press. “We try so hard to be bad boys,” Penn said on Fresh Air. “We try so hard to make people like Harry Blackstone Jr. and Henning and Copperfield angry at us. But unfortunately, they’re such professionals [he laughs]…I think they understand completely what it is we’re trying to do.” And just as they’ve fabricated flak from the magic establishment, they’ve convinced a lot of the public that their act gives away the secrets to classic tricks. It doesn’t.

Atheists, fierce civil libertarians, and self-appointed puncturers of deception, they aim to provoke thought. Teller even admits that as a kid he “wanted to be the Bach of magic, summarizing everything that went before and transforming it through composition.” Fortunately they seldom fall into didactotainment, and their clear if mocking affection for old tropes never becomes precious. While their vaunted “content” may be reflexive and cerebral, their form is a fine-tuned routine of mildly sick humor, vaudeville patter, and cabaret slapstick.

At the Oriental Theatre, Penn & Teller opened with a classic switch. Bouncing out inside an oversize inflatable caricature of himself, Penn got right to work, dragging someone onstage to pick a card while bragging that shuffling with his oversize hands was the hardest trick we’d see all night. Meanwhile a parade-float Teller ambled out clutching a yellow balloon. Penn shuffled the card the woman chose back into the deck, then went offstage to get a gun so he could shoot the balloon and presumably discover the card. No one was very surprised when he missed and shot Teller; as the balloon wafted away, “Teller” deflated, and whoever had been inside disappeared. Penn eagerly stomped Teller’s body flat and shot the balloon, releasing the card, then revealed himself to be the actual Teller by hauling his way out of the Penn costume and taking a bow.

Some signature stuff followed. Mofo the psychic gorilla (an ape mask attached to a fax machine given voice by Teller) parodied clairvoyants and mentalists. Teller did sleight of hand and misdirection with cigarettes while Penn played bass and narrated the trick, then explained it, then rattled off what Teller was doing as he sped up the trick so fast that it was impossible to see what Penn was describing. Later came the bunny-in-the-woodchipper trick, some needle swallowing, and Teller’s gorgeous, elegant “Shadows” bit, in which he takes all the leaves and then the head off a rose by cutting its shadow, cast on a blank piece of paper; then cuts his finger and bleeds only in shadow; and finally smears seemingly real blood across the paper.

Except for Penn’s truly frightening bottle juggling and the pair’s still impressive closer–they shoot .357 Magnums with laser sights into each other’s mouths–there weren’t many death-defying or equipment-intensive stunts. A bit that threw the American flag and the Bill of Rights into a burn-it-then-make-it-reappear routine was smart but not very funny. But the involved production number “Houdini” offered a terrific example of their literate approach: Teller’s repeated escapes from his shackles behind a gauzy scrim to play music and make scary faces both recalled and debunked Houdini, who himself recalled and debunked his spiritualist predecessors.

After the show, as is their custom, Penn & Teller waited in the lobby, answering questions, shaking hands, signing autographs. Once most of the crowd had dispersed, the remaining 30 or 40 people still surrounding the pair fell into a few groups: vaguely goth types of indeterminate age, silver-haired old entertainers, and some younger Chicago magicians recognizable mostly by their beards. Slipping to the front, I asked Teller if his story about Enoch Soames had really happened. “Ah,” he said with a friendly but unreadable look, “that one’s a matter of reading between the lines.”