Thrills and chills, strobe lights and explosions, tools of mortal destruction, the potential for gore and bodily injury—it’s all in a night’s work for comic illusionists Penn & Teller. Based in Las Vegas, they perform Sunday through Thursday in their own theater at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino. On occasional nights off they hit the road to present what amounts to an extended advertisement for their home show. They visited the area last Friday at the Verizon Theatre at Grand Prairie, though intense traffic congestion from an adjacent venue’s large festival meant that many missed the show’s early segments.
Daring feats of illusion were executed with rapid grace and elegant dexterity, all while Penn elucidated with sardonic humor and Teller remained silent. They specialize in the illusionary pas de deux, a dance between death and laughter. Typical was the nail gun routine, which elicited gasps and laughter, even if it really did seem Penn had shot himself multiple times. He often explained how the magic is done, revealing secrets while being clear about the extraordinary skill it takes to do it, with some humorous derision of conventional magicians thrown in for good measure.
Showmen to the core, after they’ve dazzled and satisfied the audience’s need for top-flight magic, Penn & Teller slid into the concluding section, where Penn’s passion and Teller’s artistry held court. Teller has come to infuse his performance with the sophisticated clown grace of Bill Irwin laced with the complex darkness of Charlie Chaplin. Nowhere is this more evident in the routine created from the projected shadow of a rose in a vase. In this bit of kabuki shadow theater, Teller deftly manipulated the projection as the envased rose inexplicably responded. Prop work, yes, but also artistic.
The Libertarian bent of the duo came to the fore in their American flag routine, but with depth and complexity rather than blind reactionary-ism. While Penn expounded on the rights and freedom this nation affords, the duo removed the flag from a display pole and folded it, obscuring it in a curled paper scroll that is later revealed to be the Bill of Rights. With a literal flash the flag was burned, launching Penn deeper into the theme of freedom as he examined the intentions of an act normally considered a desecration. Meshing perception and patriotism, it’s as close to religion as Penn gets.
The show concluded with Penn in intimate storyteller mode, seated on stage with a lit candle. He explained that “Everything we do comes from a love of the American sideshow. Some call it the freak show. Where I grew up in Greenfield, Massachusetts, it was the 10-in-one, 10 acts for one ticket. The people I related to were the self-made freaks, the fire eaters and needle swallowers. I became a fire-eater; I chose to be a freak. Years later, when I saw Teller swallowing needles, I knew we had to work together.”
Penn colorfully recounted the yahoos and bubbas who brought their girlfriends to the 10-in-one, who boasted of their knowledge, invariably wrong, of how the feats were done, while dismissing the skills entirely. “These are the people,” said Penn, “who can not accept mystery,” who will do anything “to shut out the mystery,” using their beliefs, religious and mundane, to stop them from thinking. For this one moment in the show, noted Penn, without the stage lights and lit only by candle, he could see the audience, look at them, and implore them directly: “Don’t think how, think why.”
Then using the candle as a lighter, Penn & Teller executed a subdued fire-eating routine accompanied by Penn’s explanations of how it’s done and the physical toll it entailed. During a pause, he warned the audience that what they were to see next would offend many of them more than anything they’d been exposed to all night. Teller proceeded to light cigarettes from Penn’s flaming mouth, giving one to Penn.
And yes, it did make me want to go to Las Vegas and see their home show.