By Jessica Taurins
Ask anyone about their knowledge of long-lived magicians, and surely the names Penn and Teller will come up. The duo have been working together for almost 50 years, more than half their lives, and it shows in every aspect of their performances as Teller smiles a cherubic little smile while Penn spins his yarns.
Penn and Teller’s historic career has taken them from their hometowns across the world, from movies to their own personal TV show “Fool Us”, where they invite magicians to come onstage and trick them at their own game. As a member of the audience, magic is mysterious and wonderful, but it is huge fun to know that Penn and Teller have such a thorough understanding of potential tricks that they can often pick a tell from a mile away. Delightfully, they weave these secrets into their own shows, giving their audiences a little look behind the curtain, and in some cases they fully explain the tricks they perform. But that’s something for later.
Straight from the Vegas stages to Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, Penn and Teller’s Australian tour is a little less ritzy than one could imagine their show would be in their bespoke Vegas theatre in the Rio hotel, but the content is no less impressive. The pair are masters at their craft, and delight in subverting expectations as well. Even to start they discuss their intentions to “curate our attention” in various misleading directions so magic can happen onstage without us even noticing. It sure helps as well that Penn has seemingly boundless energy that he laser focuses into the shows, roaming the stage with all the ferocity of a circus’ performing tiger.
Their show progresses as almost a series of vignettes, where each trick is often unrelated to the last. They flow smoothly through tricks that involve the audience – a giant game of poker where we pick the cards, but somehow they always manage to take the win – to an escape artist performance – where we can choose to watch the reveal of the secret, or close our eyes to keep Teller’s escape magical.
Even though some of their tricks have been previously televised or performed elsewhere, there are still new ones for even the oldest fans. My favourite new-to-me trick was a piece of semi-performance art (although Teller’s silent style often comes across as a form of modern art). Teller cuts the stems of a shadow flower on a roll of paper, then he watches solemnly as they fall from the real flower sitting a meter away from him. Of course, it’s just a trick, there is some method to the real flower disintegrating without being touched, but there is such whimsy in believing he can control it from its own shadow.
Including the audience in their magic is a huge part of the show, from pulling up a young kid onstage to have his mind absolutely blown before his eyes, to including the full theatre (almost 2,500 people!) in a coin flip game where the winner’s extremely distinctive caricature was on the back of their tally board the entire time.
Penn and Teller’s Love Ritual, another lengthy performance involving the entire audience shuffling and sharing and tearing up playing cards handed out before the show, ends as any card trick does, with each person finding the card the duo expected them to find. Still, even though shuffle tricks often follow the same patterns and a more cynical mind would say “of course it would work out”, I really did experience genuine joy upon finding that a half-card I put away in my shirt pocket earlier matched the one I was left with in my hand.
Genuinely joyful is likely the best way to describe Penn and Teller’s Australian show. Penn met Teller when he was only 19 and Teller was 26, and their long lives as performing partners have brought endless joy to so many viewers worldwide. At the end of their show, after a heartfelt tale of freak shows and fire eaters, the pair make sure to thank their crew, some of whom travelled from Vegas to be alongside them in Australia. They express such gratitude to their team and the audience for watching them – and paying for tickets, of course – but the biggest thanks should be for Penn and Teller themselves as they bring wonder and joy to everyone who sits before them.