There are some basic rules of magic. Never tell your audience how a trick is done. Don't show the audience the preparation for a trick. And never, ever perform the classic cups and balls trick with transparent cups.
Penn & Teller manage to break all of these rules and more in their show at the Rio Hotel and Casino.
Penn & Teller's edgy show is unlike any other magic production in Las Vegas. The tall, lanky Penn serves as a narrator, providing a running comedic commentary on just about everything they do, while the diminutive Teller provides a lot of the show's action, all without saying a single word. The pair manages to reveal a few tricks of their trade along the way, while turning around and completely stumping you with others.
Penn & Teller take some of the mystery out of the aforementioned cups and balls trick - a standard magic act where a magician makes balls pass through the solid bottoms of the cups, jump from one cup to another, or disappear from the cup and appear in other places. They perform the act with see-through plastic cups, allowing the audience to see exactly how it works...or do they? Part of the joke is that during the explanation, they do the trick so quickly, that it makes it pretty difficult to follow.
Penn & Teller's show relies heavily on audience interaction. Several audience members are chosen to come up and be part of some tricks and to help confirm the authenticity of others. In one vignette, the trick is actually played on the volunteer while the audience gets to watch. The volunteer is blindfolded while Penn pretends to throw knives at her. Then, again blindfolded, she is tricked into believing she throws knives at Penn.
While the audience does get to see behind the scenes during these parts of the show, other tricks the duo performs leave viewers completely mystified. Penn takes the eyeglasses from an audience member and puts them in his pocket. They somehow disappear from his pocket and end up inexplicably on Teller's face, which has been encased in a wooden box the whole time.
Teller makes coins appear out of a clear tank of water, puts them back in and goldfish magically take their place.
While there are some elements of classic magic and sleight of hand in the show, most of the tricks are incredibly creative, innovative and sometimes bordering on the macabre. Teller appears to swallow needles and then a piece of thread. He then proceeds to pull the needles, all neatly threaded together, out of his mouth.
Penn, a talented juggler, doesn't use standard objects to showcase his skills - instead he juggles broken liquor bottles and fire.
Many of the tricks are accompanied by background music from the talented jazz pianist Mike Jones, which adds another unique touch to the show. If you get to the theater early, you're in for a treat as The Mike Jones Duo performs live music to warm up the crowd. Look closely and you might recognize the tall, mysterious upright bass player in the duo.
The culmination of the show is the magic bullet trick where Penn & Teller simultaneously fire guns at each other, through small panes of glass, and then catch the bullets in their mouths. Audience volunteers with gun knowledge are brought up on stage to check the bullets and guns before and after the stunt, confirming its validity.
The trick literally ends the show with a bang, leaving the audience wondering how it was pulled off. As Penn explained, it wasn't an easy illusion to create. "We worked on The Double Bullet Catch for a couple of years before we put it in the show and we worked for as long as we could before we ever really pointed a gun. The first step was using a single gun, where just one of us fired at the other. After months of work, it was time for the first tests. We flipped a coin, and I lost. I had to point the gun at Teller first," he said. "It was so hard. Yes, it's a TRICK! Yes, we have so many safety checks in place it's almost stupid, but it was still so, so hard to do. So hard. I was trembling. It's much harder to point a gun at someone than to have a gun pointed at you. It's a trick, no reason to test me on the street. It's not impromptu."
It takes a lot of trust to be able to shoot bullets at each other - trust that has built up in Penn & Teller over 30 years of performing together.
The two first teamed up in 1975, combining Teller's magic with Penn's juggling and comic expertise, working their way up from the streets to clubs and eventually to Broadway.
By 1985, the duo was receiving critical praise for their Off-Broadway show. In 1987, they began the first of two successful Broadway runs and enjoyed national tours throughout the 1990s.
They appeared in Las Vegas at Bally's and the MGM Grand before landing a long-term gig in their own spacious theater at the Rio in 2001.
Penn & Teller have appeared more than 20 times on "Late Night with David Letterman" and on a variety of other television shows including "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno," "Miami Vice," "Hollywood Squares," "Saturday Night Live" and as animated guests on "The Simpsons."
When they aren't busy with their Las Vegas show, Penn & Teller have gotten involved in other creative projects. They are the authors of three best-selling books, "Cruel Tricks for Dear Friends," "How to Play with Your Food" and "How to Play in Traffic."
Their latest project, "Penn & Teller: Bulls--t!" for the Showtime television network, is in its fourth season. The show, which has received six Emmy nominations, sets out to debunk myths, rumors and secrets behind popular subjects such as talking to the dead, psychics and alien abductions.
Penn credits their longevity and success as a team to keeping their relationship all about work. "It's always been a business relationship. We do better stuff together than we do separately and we love working together. We have become very good friends, of course, but we don't hang out very much."
Separating their business and personal lives certainly seems to be a winning formula for Penn & Teller. Their show is constantly evolving as they add new tricks and revamp some older ones. It's one of the smartest shows in town and they certainly live up to their billing as "a couple of eccentric guys who have learned how to do a few cool things."
-- By Kristine McKenzie