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STAGE REVIEW : Penn & Teller’s Tricks Are a Treat

Times Theater Writer

There was a police cordon around an RTD bus at Wilshire and Western Monday at 7:30 p.m.--impeding foot traffic just as the audience was flocking into the Wiltern Theatre for the official return of Penn & Teller. It was hard to believe these tricksters hadn’t planned it as a sideshow. They hadn’t. Still, with these jokers one can’t be too sure.

Penn & Teller. Anyone remember them at the L.A. Stage back in 1983? This writer even remembers them before that , as part of the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society up in San Francisco. That’s prehistory--pre-Penn & Teller history.

Since then, of course, they’ve had the validation of New York and the David Lettermans of this world and the hordes of satisfied customers eager to come back for more.

The show they’re giving for their return to Los Angeles, the city that they claim put them on the map, is almost three hours long--three clever, exotic, busy, mysterious, rambunctious, loud-mouthed, funny hours. Just as it used to be--but better.

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They used to call themselves “Two Odd Ducks With a Quaint Little Show.” Forget that; they have. According to Penn Gillette, they’re now “a couple of eccentric guys who’ve learned to do a few cool things.” You bet. More hip. More with it. More like it.

Teller (no other name) is the little guy, the Harpo who never speaks. (Penn speaks enough for both.) Even back in their Asparagus Valley days, Teller was doing the visuals: swallowing needles (real ones; an audience member checks them out) and cutting the leaves and petals off the shadow of a rose--an item that remains one of the show’s most enduringly mystical and poetic sequences.

Penn is Groucho, running on and on--at the mouth, all over the stage, in the aisles--managing never to bore. Browbeat and bully, yes, but not bore.

To call this a new show is misleading. New-and-improved describes it better. There is a lot that’s old but sports a new look: A levitation bit, a biblical dart-and-board routine, shell games and card tricks. “Intrinsically wimpy,” Penn says of the latter, promptly turning one of them into a bloody affair.

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What’s great to watch is the new confidence: Buoyant. Borne aloft by the torrent of public and media approbation in recent years, the pair has acquired new polish as well as new bucks. They’ve plowed some of these bucks back into the show. There’s a certain upgrading of props. Mofo, the decapitated psychic gorilla who’s been a part of the act at least since L.A. Stage days, is a more high-tech creature now than he once was.

And there’s Teller’s underwater routine--a new acquisition. Watch him, in his very own fishbowl, beat the record for holding one’s breath once held by Houdini. Watch him wiggle his way out of a straitjacket in time to avoid landing on his head on a bed of spikes. Watch him “domesticate animals” with a series of contorted balloons. Things like that can lead to talk about a twisted sense of humor.

Weird? They were always that. But as reality has caught up with weirdness, theirs seems more tame this time around. More civilized. That card trick with a knife and a bloody hand still qualifies (“The last imitation of Christ”). So do the straitjacket and the spikes, and a mysterious account of how P & T met on a park bench--handcuffed to each other.

For the rest, Penn’s patter has acquired a new patina: Big, blustery and blasting off at the mouth with newly acquired expressions (“megaboss” and “crush-fresh”) or the coining of new pronunciations (“new age” to rhyme with “sewage”). It’s speech as endurance test--relentless.

“Everything we do comes from a love we share for the sideshow, the American freak show,” says Penn. Makes sense. There’s nothing under our sun quite like these two (and unlikely to be under anyone else’s). Their show is talk, tricks and hot air finessed by offbeat humor. They’re an acquired taste--but more fun than bowling.

Definitely.

At 3790 Wilshire Blvd., Wednesdays through Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2, 6 and 9:30 p.m.; Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Until April 16. Tickets: $15-$34.50; (213) 480-3232) or (714) 740-2000.


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