Magic for the Masses

In simple terms, Penn & Teller are the bad boys of modern magic -- that, or two of the few genuine artists working in contemporary American theater. Their irreverent showmanship -- they do ooky effects with childlike glee and sometimes even explain how a magic trick or illusion works -- supports their rogue image. Their magic, from staged drownings to sophisticated, seamless sleight of hand, is inarguably art.

Next week, Penn & Teller will be in Houston to perform benefit shows for the Rainard School, a private school for the gifted and talented. Though most people might recognize the pair from TV appearances -- the strikingly dissimilar-looking magicians (Penn is the big, punk-looking one and Teller is the little guy who never talks) are best-known for their stunts on David Letterman's show -- they began on stage. And the fine tradition of live theater is their meat.

"The great thing about live theater," Teller explains, "is that you get to do something thousands of times, so it has a chance of getting good. In the theater not only can a thing be honed technically to an unspeakable degree of perfection, it can be honed theatrically." Teller's onstage silence is, of course, theatrical. His silence creates suspense and, more important, forces the audience to watch his face, to respond to even his most subtle expression. "You could never get away with an eyelash flutter on television," he says. "Whereas in theaters you can pare something down so that it can become understated and still be very powerful ."

Penn, in the same cheerily thuggish voice he uses on stage, says, "I think what draws people to P&T is the ideas we're putting across. And, strangely enough, we deal with ideas that most people are supposed to get over. What we deal with a lot is truth."

According to Penn, the best magic is actually about truth. Houdini, he says, "was the voice of the people. The stuff he was doing was really commenting on their world and the way they felt." The big lug believes that Houdini's tricks, such as escaping from a giant football after representatives of the University of Pennsylvania sewed him up in it, actually addressed issues. Teller concurs. "Many of the people in Houdini's audience had recently arrived from repressive countries," he says. "People here were breaking out of the Victorian high-collar thing. Houdini was flappers, that whole culture of liberation. Houdini was a symbol, this little feisty tough guy who faced the giant and escaped. Freed himself up, shook off the chains."

If the legerdemain of Penn & Teller is about casting off chains, then it would seem to be the chains of conventional adult thinking they're after. Their work is almost splatter magic. There are Wes Craven movies with less stage blood and grisliness than are found in a Penn & Teller show. Most often, Teller, fair-haired and dapper, is at the mercy of his partner. Though the gray suits they wear are identical, tailoring that on Teller seems merely crisp on Penn appears to be something sharp and sinister. And, too, Penn talks. A lot. Loudly. He appears to be a threat.

What people worry about today, Teller says, "is the way they feel when they walk out their door." They feel vulnerable. In one of Penn & Teller's best-known bits, Teller is vulnerable. There he is, a sweet man who would never harm a fly, strapped into a straitjacket and suspended over a bed of steel spikes. The rope supporting him runs over a pulley and down to a chair in which sits Penn, his weight the only thing keeping the rope from slipping and Teller from plummeting to his doom. Penn explains that he is going to read aloud the poem "Casey at the Bat." And when he's finished, he's going to stand up and let the rope slide. As he reads, Teller writhes over the spikes, attempting to make his escape. As it begins to look like Teller just might save himself, Penn reads faster and faster.

This is wildly funny, almost unbearably horrible, and perfect for this generation of alienation. People clutch each other in fear and they laugh hysterically at the cruelty, but, Teller explains, "the underpinning that people find hard to articulate, what they are not recognizing, is what they really know. Which is that we trust each other." The real theme in this scene "is that two guys can be absolutely night-and-day different and still trust each other in a life-and-death situation."

Because of their style, a Penn & Teller show is unlike any other magic act. And, also because of their style, a Penn & Teller show is classic magic. Their partnership may look more like vaudeville than legerdemain, and though classic magicians such as Max Malini, who wowed everyone at the turn of the century, probably wouldn't have played "rodent roulette" -- a trick in which Penn & Teller risk their fingers in a wheel of large mouse traps -- at their core, Penn & Teller are appealing for the same reason that all great illusionists are appealing. "What holds the audience's attention, what holds my attention," Teller says, "is the fascinating chore of deciding where make-believe ends and reality starts."

"Those themes," Penn adds, "are absolutely built into magic. It just so happens that the other people in magic are too retarded to realize it." He despises, for instance, Doug Henning's lisping invitation to enter "the magical world of illusion." "You don't want people to put aside their disbelief," Penn snorts, "you want them to jerk off to it. The point is, we are going to have the visceral and the intellectual collide at 100 miles per hour."

At the end of their shows, Penn & Teller reveal almost all, playing on the idea that if you know how you've been fooled, it makes the fooling not less but more impressive. This custom will be continued at their Jones Hall shows. Teller says, "Afterwards, we'll be in the lobby covered with blood. We'll be the two guys naked except for knee-length T-shirts drenched in red Karo syrup and food coloring. Actually, I think we're using the Roscoe amalgam of the stuff, which is corn syrup, shampoo and water with red food coloring, which comes out of most fabrics, which is kind of nice. But the great thing is, we stand there and little kids come up and they go, 'Can I have some blood on my program please?' They get it."

Penn & Teller perform to benefit the Rainard School at 8 p.m. April 15 and 16 in Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana, 629-3700. $20-$40.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Edith Sorenson