Penn & Teller: The Wisest Men on the Planet?

Last night Rhys and I went to see Penn & Teller at the Hammersmith Odeon. It was so, so good. I love magic. And I love what Penn & Teller tell us about magic.

Magic is all about working very, very hard to create an illusion. The Cigarette piece is Teller losing and finding a cigarette, miraculously lit or unlit, in his hat, in his pocket. We are watching the impossible and it feels delightful. It feels good. You know what, I like that feeling. I am hungry for that feeling and that feeling is magic. I apologize for that last sentence which I feel would cause the Iowa Writers Conference severe nausea.

Then Teller does the same sequence from the other side. Penn talks you through the palm, the switch, the simulation, the steal, the misdirection, the ditch, the load and the French drop (a combination simulation and ditch). While he walked the audience at the Hammersmith Apollo through that last night, it didn't diminish the poetry of Teller's illusions, it enhanced it. It showed how difficult the switches and loads are in truly compelling magic. Difficult, but performed by humans. And that is Penn's, especially, searing message in this show. The magic is the feeling, the wonder. It is always a matter of steal, misdirection and loads.

At the end, Penn eats fire. So electric was this performance, by the way. I was reminded of the footage of Danny Kaye at the Palladium in the 1950's, a historic concert, where Kaye scandalised London by sitting on the edge of the stage speaking honestly about his life. I was reminded when Penn tells us about watching fire eaters when he was a kid at the circus. He says he knew he was different from other kids because of his reaction to watching people eat fire. To his peers, those people were freaks but to Penn those fire eaters were his instant confreres.

How brave to say that. And how especially brave to out yourself as a freak in London. This ain't Vegas, Penn, they don't feel the love so much here.The freak thing could get your visa denied here in a couple years.

Penn talked about the pain of the trick, and the devotion he had to it, and how it always, always hurts. He was saying perfectly true things about himself as clearly as he could. That was magic. I had a jolt of wonder and joy when Teller made a hundred goldfish appear in an empty bowl and I had maybe a bigger jolt of wonder and joy when Penn told the truth of his life. The parallel is art, right? Art or truth?

Instead of going to my ten year college reunion, I ended up in New York with a broken-hearted friend. She had a pain worse than unrequited love, she had almost not unrequited love. I came up from DC and we performed the traditional break-up best friend rituals: we watched Heartburn and The Way We Were (I still recommend this cure, actually). Before we turned on the movies, we posted her profile to By the time the movies were over, thirty promisingly photographed men had sent funny e-mails begging to correspond with her. That was good. But the best part was Saturday afternoon. While our classmates gathered in that West Chicago suburb, we went down to the East Village and saw a magic show in a dusty community center.

The magician was a man dressed homelessly. He made bubbles dance with each other in the air and then made the bubbles turn into butterflies as he told us of the joy of falling in love. And when he told of breaking up with his beloved, he swallowed needles. He retrieved them, tied together, the symbols of the damage to his heart. It was joyful. It was magic.

Magic makes you feel better. I am sure it's the shock to the neural networks of seeing the unexpected, I'm sure it's the increased load of synapses that fire as you watch looking for the palm, the switch, the simulation, the steal, the misdirection and the load. And on top of that, the magicians told us their secrets with an intimacy reserved for family and closest friends (Note to Penn: For English people, not even family and closest friends). Inspiring evening. As good as Mahler's Third, as good as The Pillowman or The Walworth Farce (ok, close to as good as those plays), as good as looking at Starry Night and dreaming of the Dr. Who Van Gogh.

We need more magic in this world and we need more magicians brave enough to tell us their secrets.


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