at the Shubert Theatre


at the Steppenwolf Theatre

It’s so hard to stay hip. New concepts come and go like witches in Oz. And if you don’t catch them the first time, you’re lost. You’re stuck making learned faces while happy, knowledgeable people discuss them at parties.

Take postmodernism. You don’t know what it is, do you? Go ahead and admit it. Somehow you missed the first briefing on the subject. It was in the issue you didn’t read. It was on the show you didn’t see. And now you feel trapped. Everything and everybody in the whole world is postmodern now, and you don’t know why.

Well, as it happens, there’s an easy and pleasant way to find out. Go see Penn & Teller, the ne plus ultracool illusionists, at the Shubert Theatre. They may have their faults, but they’re sure to give you a first-rate sense of what this postmodern business is all about.

The secret’s pretty simple, really. Postmodernism, as I understand it, is the elevation of irony to the status of style, You take some traditional form–some art or craft or aesthetic from the past–and recapitulate it in a new context, so that its meaning is transformed. So that it becomes a comment, maybe even a joke, on itself. A postmodern architect might stick motifs from a classical temple on his multinational corporate headquarters, thereby letting us know where the gods currently reside. A postmodern artist might repaint an image out of Picasso’s oeuvre, thereby declaring an end to the era of originality.

Penn & Teller do the same thing with illusion. They perform all the tricks, but transform the context, so that nothing means exactly what it would at a traditional magic show. The attitude and not the event, ultimately, is the point.

Teller, for instance, repeats Houdini’s stunt, allowing himself to be submerged in an “underwater coffin of certain doom.” Now this seems pretty death-defying at first, but after he’s been in there for about six minutes we begin to realize that our expectations have been played with. The illusion’s been doubled over on itself, so that we experience the pleasant terror of the stunt even as we’re being shown its structure. Penn & Teller let us stand inside and outside the joke at the same time.

These guys aren’t out to destroy the mystery. That would be a modernist tactic. Very unpostmodern. No, they’re trying to redirect it. To push us, as the extremely talkative Penn says, past the simple mystery of “how” toward the more profound one of “why.” Sometimes they push too hard and end up coming out the other side. Penn has a long monologue in which he tries to ally himself with the raffish tradition of the carnival side show; it’s supposed to sound cool and rebellious, like James Dean smoking a cigarette, but instead it comes off mawkish and preachy, like Red Skelton saying, “Good night and may God bless.” That’s because Penn’s made the crucial mistake of forgetting his context: you can’t be raffish in the Schubert Theatre.

He doesn’t forget often, though. Like any good postmodernists, Penn & Teller are extraordinarily skillful. Their show is witty and full of a genuinely beautiful finesse. And sometimes they can even leave an illusion alone, as when Teller plays out a sort of visual haiku with a flower, a vase, a knife, and a shadow.

Of course, smooth downtown postmodernism doesn’t come cheap. If you want something a little rougher and more reasonably priced you might try Terry Won’t Talk. the late-night show at Steppenwolf.

Written by Mark Leib while he was still at the Yale Drama School, this one-act about a little boy who drives everybody wild with his silence is obviously collegiate work: very funny, very smart, very snotty, and very derivative. You can check off the influences as you go along. Here’s some diction out of Ionesco, a strategy out of Charles Ludlam, an imaginative leap out of fellow Yalie Harry Kondoleon.

Happily, Leib’s clever enough to make it look more like erudition than slavish imitation. He keeps his satire going until–well, almost until–the end. And there’s even the beginning of an interesting thought here, about how a given normality destroys anything that threatens it.

Even more happily, Jim True’s direction is not only clever but solid. He and his excellent ensemble understand that even absurdity has its laws, and they root their production in a distinct, if weirdly skewed, reality.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Emmitt Martin.