ALTHOUGH THEY conjure up an evening of off-the-wall illusions, Penn & Teller are not trained magicians. In fact, magic's bad boys, who are at Baltimore's Center Stage through June 21, disdain the traditional top-hats, tuxedos, birds, bunnies and buxom blondes.
"If you know too much about magic you tend to repeat things people have done before," says Teller, a former Latin teacher who did occasional needle-swallowing at fraternity parties. "We just beat our brains trying to come up with something that intrigues us."
"The technology of magic is all backwards," adds Penn, who skipped college to wash dishes at HoJo's. "It's like a Steven Spielberg movie where they come up with a special effect and then write a script to fit. Magicians say 'I've got this great new way to pull a dove out of my vest' and build an act around it.
"We have people in our audience every night who are leaders of nations and brain surgeons," Penn says. "So we're not about to get up there and say 'We can do this and you can't,' which is what every other magician does. Well-educated people believe they can trust their perceptions. We hope people will think, 'If these guys can pull something off on this level -- imagine what the politicians are getting away with.' "
This month's Center Stage engagement is one of P&T's last stage performances for at least a year. This summer they'll be shooting their first movie, a murder mystery called "Penn & Teller Get Killed," and finishing a how-to home video on practical jokes called "Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends," which should be available by Christmas.
"I'm going to miss doing a live show," Teller says wistfully. "It's the one time we get to do something right."
Everything's Coming Up . . . Texas?: New Playwrights' Theater director Peter Frisch says his desk is piling up with scripts about the Lone Star state and resume's from relocated Texan actors. This fall, Frisch says, NPT is likely to produce "The Night Hank Williams Died," a new play by Larry L. King, who had a hit with "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." And NPT recently presented a reading of another Texas-themed play, "The Chili Queen," a first play by Jim Lehrer (of the McNeil-Lehrer Report).
Why not an all-black " 'night, Mother"? Or an Hispanic "Othello"?
The concept is called nontraditional casting -- placing ethnic and female actors in roles where race or gender are not germane to the character's or play's development -- and planning begins Monday on a November symposium on the controversial subject. The League of Washington Theaters is sponsoring the event; it's patterned after a symposium held in New York last year, at which a study revealed that 90 percent of the professional plays in the U.S. had all-white casts, even in cities, like Our Town, with at least 50 percent nonwhite populations.
Arena Stage director Jim Nicola, one of the co-chairs with actor Bill Grimmett, attended the New York event, where he saw examples of possible casting, "Several scenes were presented, like a 'Barefoot in the Park' which convinced me that it's a silly play no matter how you cast it; a 'Philadelphia Story' with a black Tracy Lord; and the most successful one in my opinion, James Earl Jones playing Big Daddy in a scene from 'Cat On a Hot Tin Roof.' " Nicola says the League "perceives a large problem with a lack of minority participation in theater in general in Washington -- onstage, behind the stage, in the offices and in the audience. The idea is that this symposium will be an eye-catching event to begin discussion." The public symposium, with panel discussions and professionally produced scenes, will be held in November.
Stage Superstitions: Colleen Dewhurst says her usual pre-show good-luck rite requires "putting my makeup on in the same order every night." But for the duration of "My Gene," her one-woman show at the Terrace Theater, Dewhurst has an additional superstition -- she will not travel without "Baby," a faceless rag doll, who, Dewhurst says "reflects exactly whatever I'm feeling."
Re: Joyce: I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes. Dramatic stuff, huh? That's the last line of James Joyce's "Ulysses," Molly Bloom speaking, and there are some who say you haven't lived till you've heard the book read aloud. Washington's fourth annual marathon reading of "Ulysses" begins Tuesday at noon, and 38 readers -- including O.B. Hardison, director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, and actresses Joan Durante and Barbara Carter, who will do the Molly Bloom passages -- will read in shifts for 34 hours nonstop. The reading, organized by Herb Guggenheim, a teacher, writer and Joyce fan, is free (though donations may be made to the Washington Literacy Council) at Cafe Beaux Arts, 2111 P St. NW. Food and drink will be available around the clock. B.Y.O.B.. as in Book.
Bulletin Board: Washington Stage Guild is summering in Provincetown, but it's all work and all plays -- the troupe is performing the first of two bills of plays by the Provincetown Players as part of a four-day conference called "Beginnings: 1915 The Cultural Moment," about the birth of modern theater in America . . . If you're at "Dreamgirls" this weekend, watch for dancer Matthew Dickens -- he's the one wearing the shades. Dickens, a 1979 graduate of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, was a dancer on TV's "Fame" before joining the "Dreamgirls" tour . . . Horizons Theater artistic director Leslie Jacobson was in New York last week to receive Horizons' award from the Dramatists Guild, the professional association of playwrights, lyricists and composers. Horizons was one of four theaters to receive the Committee for Women's sixth annual Award for Excellence and Leadership in Theater by Women . . . Ford's Theater knocks down "Nunsense" on June 14, but just long enough to set up the 11th Ford's Gala, June 21, with co-hosts Michael J. Fox and Bea Arthur. The singing "Nuns" will be back on the boards June 25 -- the show's been extended through July 26 . . . Touchstone Theater's "Four Men From Annapolis," which was to open this week, has been postponed again -- actor Kent Liggett was hit by a car while riding his bike. While Liggett is getting a cast for a broken arm, the role will be recast. Touchstone is now shooting for a June 22 opening . . . Live! It's Friday Night at the Kennedy Center: Coming to the Concert Hall July 24 is "An Evening of Comedy with 'Saturday Night Live,' " including SNL favorites Dana Carvey (better known as the Church Lady), Dennis Miller (Weekend Update anchorperson) and Kevin Nealon. Well isn't that special . . .