Penn & Teller

at the Shubert Theatre, through June 14

By Carol Burbank

Penn and Teller are the medicine-show con men of our time, their snake-oil trickery modified for the stage, big screen, and TV. Like their frontier counterparts, they feed on Americans’ need to believe we know it all while satisfying our inexhaustible craving for surprise. Part of their shtick is to make us believe we’ve got the inside track on their lives: they include an eight-page history in their latest tour program, starting with their births and ending with their April 1998 performances in Hawaii and California. There are all sorts of tidbits about their professional lives, like the fact that their equipment was stolen in 1978 (sympathetic clucks from readers–the superstars are humanized by their youth). They make sure we know they’ve been crazy forever, hence the clever titles of their past bits–“Barbecue Death Squad From Hell,” “Rodent Roulette.” And we can trace their rise to fame as America’s multimedia hucksters by way of a list of their guest appearances since 1986, which reads like a Who’s Who of high-profile TV–Letterman, Leno, Jane Pauley, SNL.

But Penn and Teller earn their keep. A new bit in which Teller “catches” bullets in his teeth is gorgeous. His needle-eating routine is still amazing, and the most lyrical moment of the show is his trick of pruning a rose by cutting its silhouette. Penn (the tall, talkative one) is still a boffo juggler, and his parody of the Chicago fire laws that prohibit him from juggling fire is an iconoclast’s dream. Even the tricks they do to debunk magic reveal that they’re virtuoso magicians.

It’s their perverse way of twisting the audience against themselves, however, that makes the whole experience worthwhile. Even as they seduce us into credulity with spectacularly staged tricks, they stimulate our doubts and cynicism. In their hands audience members become willing marks. Invited to participate in their debunking of spiritualism, special effects, and card tricks and armed with just enough information to give us a dangerous ignorance, we’re more easily fooled. In fact we collude in our own deception, our worst and best selves fully engaged in the process. After a few hours with Penn and Teller, it’s hard to tell our best from our worst: is our best side the one that’s never fooled or the one that was fooled and enjoyed it?

The key to their appeal lies between the lines of the extensive bio. Penn and Teller’s days as street performers under the name “Asparagus Valley Cultural Society” during the 70s trained them to work the most difficult audience any performer can face–customers who haven’t paid and don’t want to pay, demanding consistent improvisational excellence before they’ll part with a nickel. When I interviewed Teller during the duo’s 1989 tour, he bragged that they’d earned big bucks from their boulevard audiences.

That’s a gift that keeps on giving today, when Penn and Teller have transferred their early small-scale spectacles and cons to the big stage, using a P.T. Barnum approach to inspire audiences who’ve already paid high ticket prices to give a little more during the performance. Whereas people spend most intermissions in line at the drinks and sweets counter or waiting for the toilet, at this show they paid 25 cents to 15 dollars for the privilege of seeing Penn–“the amazing rubber boy,” as he dubbed himself–pretzeled into a barrel pierced with steel pipes. I counted 200 visitors to the shrine of the barrel before ten minutes had passed. The line just kept getting longer. Peer pressure? The irresistible urge to be close to celebrity? The suspicion that Penn might actually be made of rubber? Who knows. Teller collected the money, tucking bills and coins into his coat pocket, which bulged visibly by the end of the 15-minute break.

As people left the stage, they seemed to feel they’d gotten a good deal; most of them just said, “Well, he’s really in there!” as if they’d expected yet another disappearing trick. I played a different kind of voyeur, cautioned by Penn’s reference to Barnum’s arguably greatest trick: while drumming up intermission business, Penn noted that the audience should go back into the house via stairs he called the “egress.” In his traveling tent show Barnum invited viewers to “See the Egress,” funnelling suckers out the exit and forcing them to pay the entrance fee a second time if they wanted to go back in. Penn and Teller played a similar joke, making the audience pay twice for the show, suggesting we’d be missing something if we didn’t line up to see Penn curled up in the barrel.

The wonder of their performance is that the audience is captured by its own conflicting desires, exacerbated by the show’s participatory aspect. I felt superior because I knew the Barnum story and didn’t get duped, but I also felt slightly cheated since I had to satisfy my curiosity secondhand. The people who paid extra got to feel superior because they saw Penn up close in a small space, but no one seemed particularly excited about it afterward, as if it wasn’t quite as special as they thought it would be.

Penn and Teller are great fun. But they’re scary as hell, obnoxious and condescending. Penn hooks us with his patter, making us feel like insiders because he’s showing us some simple tricks. Then he insults us when we’re surprised because his patter distracted us from seeing how the trick worked. He’s so loud and smug that we try to make the silent Teller a representative of goodness and sweetness–hence the opening bit that casts him as a new messiah. Teller lets us get comfortable in our sentimental idea only to turn it against us. It’s Teller who threatens to stuff a bunny into a shredder. It’s Teller whose escape from seemingly immovable bonds parodies spiritualism. His mobile face expresses snide disdain at our applause after a particularly theatrical trick. But he’s incredibly persuasive as he concentrates, building toward a trick’s climax: no wonder he shakes his head, warning us when we start to believe in him.

There aren’t many performers who know how to work an audience so well. Making fools of us, Penn and Teller condescendingly prove the Barnum maxim that there’s a sucker born every minute. But they do it smartly, and the pleasure is greater than the sting.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited photo.