Twenty Years In, Penn & Teller are Still Magicians with a Message

img-395.jpgParty poops to some, cerebral hoots to others, bullshit detectors to everyone.

Given that last part alone—particularly in a city where fantasy tramples reality—Penn & Teller are still worth the price of admission (for the record: $75 and $85). Someone’s gotta keep it real here.

Marking 20 years as Vegas headliners with a contract extension through 2018 at the Rio, the magic-deconstructionists—burly, loquacious Penn and shorter, silent Teller, whom many would recognize from Showtime’s defunct series, Penn & Teller: Bullshit!—deliver a greatest-hits package of vintage tricks, lightly sprinkled with new routines. Returnees won’t uncover a great deal that’s new, but the same dollops of shock, politics, skepticism and flipping off convention are still a kick in the intellect.

Against unflashy sets and proudly contrary to the egocentric bombast of, say, a Criss Angel (whom they mock with a cardboard cutout), the guys delight in debunking stunts by explaining many, but withhold enough to mystify us.

Finding an audience member’s cellphone inside a dead fish, plus Teller escaping from a helium-filled trash bag (with no gas released) and becoming a levitating teapot are amusing enough. So is a cool illusion in which a man brought onstage suddenly vanishes, replaced—after a flash of light briefly blinds us—by Teller. Renowned skeptic Penn implores us not to trust psychics and spiritualists by guessing jokes selected from jokebooks given to folks in the crowd. Message: ESP is trickery, a.k.a. bullshit.

Yet the best bits carry their trademark political bite—they’re avowed libertarians—such as how to fool airport metal detectors and make a point, using the Bill of Rights printed on small pieces of metal. (Penn wants travelers to flood McCarran with them.) Later, they wrap the American flag inside the Bill of Rights and apparently burn it—only to have it reappear on a flagpole.

Especially ballsy now, as a gun-control debate rages, is the finale, as they appear to fire .357 handguns at each other and catch bullets in their teeth.

Thankfully, the boys remain simultaneously cemented in the Vegas aesthetic as performers while floating outside it as ironic commentators on false show-biz trappings, a duality lending depth and heft other acts lack. Intellectual entertainment—respecting the audience enough to challenge, rather than pacify them—is Penn & Teller’s ace card, and in this town of outlandish visual diversions, there should always be a place for that, and for them.

Perhaps it’s mere coincidence that in the repertoire of jazz pianist Mike Jones, performing as folks file in, is “Manhã de Carnaval”—a.k.a., “A Day in the Life of a Fool.” What fools we magic-fan mortals would be … if not for Penn & Teller.

STRIP POSTSCRIPT: Come April, Absinthe, our favorite carnival on acid, celebrates its 1,000th show. Let’s hope for something extra special—i.e., extra smutty—from co-host Penny Pibbets and her horny sock puppets. Something that would drive a porn starlet to snap on a chastity belt and hand the key to Pat Robertson.

If Teller ever spoke to Penn onstage, what would you like to hear him say? Tell us in the comments.

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