It'smuch too easy, and really not accurate, to tag Penn & Teller as a mere "magic act." They're a magical act.
Billing themselves as "two eccentric guys who have learned to do a few cool things," avant-magicians Penn Jillette and his silent partner Teller take the focus off their hocus-pocus and urge us instead to embrace mystery and imagination. At Baltimore's Center Stage, their mix of mirth, mystification and metaphysics goes beyond now-you-see-it-now-you-don't -- they're interested in deeper illusions.
Which is not to say they don't have The Sleight Stuff: The fleet two hours includes flip card tricks, executed with a twist of Theater of Cruelty; a hold-your-breath underwater straitjacket escape; the levitation of an audience member; MOFO, the computerized psychic gorilla; an utterly inexplicable trick with a Gideons Bible, a dart board and a dice table.
There's also an appallingly funny spoof of "performance art," in which Penn & Teller reenact man's domestication (read "domination") of the animals, using an electric bass solo and balloon animals; Teller engages in a lovely, macabre bit of shadow play that's like an Edward Gorey illustration come to life; and Penn ends the enchanted evening with an intimate torchlit monologue about his lifelong affection for sideshow tents and their denizens. His fire-eating finale is an illuminating moment.
But let's stop there. It wouldn't be fair or fun to detail everything that occurs. It may not even be possible.
"This is a magic show for people who think they hate magic," Penn says, and P&T pointedly send up "real magicians" with malicious glee. Embellishing an "intrinsically wimpy" cups-and-balls trick with insipid mincing and gesturing, they conjure up acute impressions of such popular prestidigitators as Doug Henning and David Copperfield, both of whom seem mired in the past when compared with Penn & Teller's cutting-edge cutups.
Comically costumed in nondescript gray business suits in place of the standard top hats and capes, Penn & Teller immediately break the cardinal rules of magic: Never do the same trick twice; never reveal the trick to the lay public; and never let the audience see your preparations.
Though they pop magic's bubble, and lace their levity with streaks of dark humor and self-conscious theatricality, it seems their motives are to discourage blind faith and encourage wonder. "We don't want you to leave here thinking about how we did it. We want you to think about why," Penn says, only half in jest.
Like Laurel & Hardy, Lennon & McCartney, Mutt & Jeff, theirs is an inspired teaming: tall, goofy, garrulous Penn, with a hair style like a Brillo pompadour; and diminutive Teller, who says nothing but sneaks wonderfully droll glances at the audience.
The gravel-voiced Penn's high-powered comic delivery incorporates elements of late-night talk show hosts, televangelists, est seminar leaders and others of that ilk. Teller plays straight man and leaves the talking to Penn, but there's a fully developed persona in his deadpan silence and faux-timidity.
Nearly every stunt involves the audience -- willing or not -- so when the house lights come up, the room ripples with apprehensive giggling. But there's nothing to fear: Penn & Teller make everyone look good -- they even thoughtfully offered a Polaroid photo to the woman they levitated on opening night.
Penn & Teller enjoyed a long run in a small off-Broadway theater, and the act nestles comfortably into the airy Center Stage (cheekily described by Penn as "a kind of swanky Chekhov-type joint"). The duo is there for three weeks; then they begin a year-long hiatus from live performances. So catch them quick -- before they make themselves disappear.
Penn & Teller, by Penn Jillette and Teller. Directed by Art Wolff; set, John Lee Beatty; lighting, Dennis Parichy. With Penn Jillette and Teller. At Baltimore's Center Stage through June 14.