Penn & Teller take their best shots

Review: After 25 years, you know what to expect, and it's usually enough.

February 03, 2000|By Mike Giuliano | Mike Giuliano,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

There's gunplay taking place nightly at the Lyric Opera House, but it's more or less playful. Normally joined by an ampersand, Penn & Teller stand on opposite sides of the Lyric's stage and shoot handguns at each other in one of the most dangerous-seeming routines in a show that explodes with them.

Penn & Teller spend a couple of hours shooting guns, throwing knives, juggling broken bottles and doing other mortality-inducing stuff. The audience has paid good money to see these hazardous stunts and it cheers accordingly. No real bodily injury is inflicted, of course, because these two malicious magicians would like to be around for the rest of their Baltimore run.

If there no longer seems to be much genuine surprise or "edge" to their riskier tricks, it's partly because, as Penn announces at one point, they've been performing together for 25 years. By now, most of us know what to expect and might go "wow" less often than we did on first encountering this dynamic duo. What remains as impressive as ever, though, is their exquisite skill in making difficult stunts look easy. Juggle flaming torches and deliberately catch one by its burning end? Hey, no problem.

Another delight is their ability to demonstrate how some of their magic is done without ruining the magic of it all. When they let us in on some of the tricks of the trade, they're functioning in the self-reflexive postmodernist mode of performers who want us to appreciate both the stunt and how it was constructed.

That sort of quasi-academic analysis is something Penn Jillette (to grant him his full name) would certainly understand. His ability to spout a torrent of words remains undiminished after all these years. The large and loud half of the team, he has the booming delivery of a preacher. Actually, their current show often jestingly evokes the aura of a revival meeting, with Penn asking the congregation, er, audience if one trick they've just seen qualifies as "miracle or magic trick."

Penn's fast-pitched rants on various topics are usually funny, but sometimes he goes on longer than he should -- and his jokes about his motormouth don't make it much easier to take. This makes a few segments drag, but stick around for the next card trick or physical stunt.

If Penn's mouth is even bigger than the stocky body of which it is a part, Teller, who tellingly only goes by that single name, is silent. However, this slightly built sidekick's body language speaks volumes. He's an expert mime who can make a sly smile seem as sharp as any knife.

That partnership of opposites -- big and loud, small and silent -- is itself a gag that makes us laugh before they even do anything. And it's important to add that these two magicians couldn't do it alone. They rely so extensively on audience volunteers that the house lights are often up as Penn & Teller scout the auditorium in search of folks who are willing to subject themselves to deadly weapons and equally deadly laughter.

One of P & T's savviest full-disclosure gestures is inviting the audience to come up on stage at intermission to see how the 6-foot-6-inch, 270-pound Penn is able to fit inside a modest-sized barrel used in a first-act routine. Sure enough, he's wedged in there, looking up at you and talking away, a real barrel of laughs.

Penn & Teller

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. today and tomorrow;5 p.m. and 9 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. and 7: 30 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $15-$39.50

Call: 410-481-SEAT

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