Are guns fun? Penn & Teller seem to think so. They conclude their new show, a largely delightful pageant of their patented combination of comic schtick and magic tricks, standing at opposite ends of the stage, pointing handguns at each other’s heads. The possibility of real mayhem is hinted at in the bulletproof vests and visors they wear, but that’s showbiz, of course, and when Penn’s bullet shows up in Teller’s teeth, and vice versa, the audience duly applauds. An amazing feat, yes, but also a disquieting one in a world where real gunfire is neither exotic nor, generally speaking, accompanied by gasps of delighted laughter. With newspapers full of stories about a schoolyard massacre by two boys of roughly the same age as the audience volunteers used in other segments of the show, the stunt may leave audiences with a bitter aftertaste.
That’s a pity, because despite their wide travels, these prestidigitators have lost none of their unique appeal. They make the standards of sleight-of-hand fresh by wrapping them in a cocoon of ironic attitude. Perhaps the biggest trick of all is how their gleeful embrace of the “debunking thang,” as Penn calls it, serves only to enhance the appeal of classic tricks. Fox TV specials notwithstanding, showing us how a casual hide-the-cigarette illusion works doesn’t deflate our opinion of their talents, it somehow enlarges it.
Penn excels as a purveyor of comic patter, using his naturally evangelistic charisma to open the show with a funny routine that sends up the spoon-bending school of magic, while an audience volunteer helps with the first trick, in which a stretch of polyester manages to be snipped and tied repeatedly yet somehow remain intact. Penn’s firecracker delivery also adds spice to a broken-bottle juggling routine, as he digresses endlessly on the danger of the trick, and then digresses again to remind us that his digressions are all part of the routine’s drama-heightening effects.
The more elaborate stunts include an industrial-strength card trick, in which giant metal facsimiles of playing cards are used in a display of “sleight-of-forklift” to bring a new dimension to an age-old standby, and a tribute to Houdini that finds Teller able to impersonate the ghost of the legendary magician from behind a curtain — while tied and stapled to a chair.
Teller’s silent, endearing presence (he looks like the Grinch, after his heart grew 2-1/2 sizes) lends a sweet aura of mystery to the evening’s penultimate illusion, which is its best. On a white screen is projected what appears to be the silhouette of the rose that sits in a vase on a stand in front of it. But Teller takes a pair of scissors to the silhouette, and as he snips away at what appears to be a shadow, the petals fall from the “real” flower.
After the gentle charm of this moment, the gunshot finale is all the more jarring. Asking for a pair of gun experts from the audience (how chilling to think that there’s no risk of not finding any), Penn launches into the act’s elaborate setup, which serves to convince us that — wow! — these are real guns and real bullets.
The thrill of danger has always been part of the magician’s arsenal, but the danger of flaming torches has no grim resonance in the real world. Guns do, and to use them as just another toy in the magician’s box of tricks is to strip them of their horror, to make light of the misery they inflict, to infuse them with glamour. In front of an audience of adults, that would be merely tasteless; in front of an audience with more than a few children, it’s dishonorable. (“Violent Culture, Media Share Blame, Experts Say,” read the headline in a recent story about the schoolyard massacre.) By the stunt’s end, I didn’t care how they did it; I was too busy wondering why they did it.