And now, Penn & Teller: Masters of magic with that cutting edge

Penn & Teller perform the ultimate trick: The magical masters of irreverent illusion and parodic prestidigitation turn themselves into serious, serious guys.

It happened in separate telephone interviews last week, talking about their Baltimore appearance Wednesday at the Lyric Theatre. The evening is a benefit for the Magic Me organization, which involves "at risk" young people in community service to the elderly.


Before the serious stuff, however, a plug:

Penn Jillette (the tall and talkative one onstage) and Teller (the short, silent one who once had a first name but has legally banished it from his passport and driver's license) promise that almost half their show will be new to local audiences.


"We're planning a whole new show on Broadway in '95," says Mr. Jillette, estimating that about 35 minutes of their 90-minute concert appearance will be getting some preview tuning.

Teller, who talks to interviewers but never to audiences, says four bits in the show have not been performed in their previous Baltimore appearances. (Their last show here was the "Refrigerator Tour" in 1990.)

Both acknowledge, however, that many fans expect to see some of their classic routines -- such as Teller swallowing needles and regurgitating them neatly threaded -- and they promised plenty of their trademark stage blood.

Talk of that blood, in fact, takes the pair into serious territory.

They passionately oppose the rising sentiment in Congress and elsewhere that links violence in performing media to violence in society.

"We're supposed to believe everybody's an idiot who imitates anything they see on TV?" asks Teller."Make-believe violence and violence on the street are two entirely different things. It's just a false idea."

"Special effects is our fantasy way of dealing with the horror around us," says Mr. Jillette, whose stage persona frequently commits mayhem upon his partner.

He says he finds "totally insane" the current controversy over the MTV series "Beavis and Butt-Head," the cartoon show blamed for spurring a 5-year-old Ohio boy to set a fire that killed a younger sibling.


Rather, such programs -- as well as "The Three Stooges" and the Penn & Teller show -- help young people, he contends.

"You are teaching the child the difference between fantasy and reality. And when you learn that, then you can watch anything," Mr. Jillette argues.

Teller says he is fascinated by the reaction of audiences to the magicomedy team's apparent violence.

"At the end of our show we end up drenched, absolutely drenched, in stage blood. Then we come out and stand there and greet people. But people want to hug us. Kids want to smear it on their programs."


"Because they know it's play. It gives you the feeling that you can, for a moment at least, rise above the violence and tragedy around us."


Penn & Teller, who began performing together as college students in 1975, also see their act as a counter-balance to some of society's trends.

Both cite Harry Houdini as an inspiration, for he consciously tried to project the age in which he performed. They see his physical escapes from the bonds of handcuffs and straitjackets, often applied by authority figures of the day, as symbolizing the post-Victorian liberation that came to flower as the Roaring Twenties.

"But we're really doing things contrary to the spirit of this age," suggests Teller, noting for one thing, that the Penn & Teller show involves a professional relationship that has lasted far longer than most marriages these days.

"Everybody today has got to be his own strong individual, and here we are talking about partnership. Maybe that's our appeal," he proposes.

Mr. Jillette offers another distinction.

"If someone claimed they were capturing the spirit of this age, then they would have to be tremendously popular, somebody like Madonna," he says sardonically -- implying the Penn & Teller crowd is not exactly a mass market audience, at least not yet.


He does suggest that, like Houdini, their act tends to debunk the New Age movement and rebel against "the fantasy of the '60s" by taking magic and "putting a rational, skeptical edge to it."

He says audiences tend to be unusually heavy with scientists, noting a recent show in Los Angeles when eight Nobel Prize winners were in attendance.

' See? Serious guys.


What:"Magic Me Presents Penn & Teller"

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday


Where: Lyric Theatre, 104 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Tickets: $50, $35 and $25

Call:243-9066; TicketMaster, 481-7328