Updated March 29, 2021 - 11:50 am
Penn & Teller had been through a pause, even before pandemic. You might remember, somewhat murkily, that Teller underwent three back surgeries over 18 months ending in December 2019.
As a result, the duo were forced offstage for several weeks. Penn Jillette performed in a temporary “Penn & Friends” lineup, alongside Harrah’s mainstay Mac King, Flamingo headliner Piff the Magic Dragon and comedy-writer/magician Matt Donnelly. Teller had been back to performing for about a month when the duo were cornered by COVID.
But because of the pandemic, Penn & Teller recall that period as no big deal.
“Now, that all seems like nothing,” Penn Jillette said in a phone chat Friday afternoon. “Teller is completely healthy. I mean, if nothing else, this year gave us a chance to recharge and find a lot of new stuff.”
Restless, nervous and creatively rejuvenated, P&T are finally back onstage at Penn & Teller Theater at 9 p.m. April 22-26 and April 29-30. The show’s first set of dates continues May 1-2 and 6-8, June 3-6 and 10-13 (tickets are on sale at 10 a.m. Friday at caesars.com/shows).
Jillette expressed his anxiousness in returning to the stage in a recent conversation with his buddy Piff. The costumed dragon offered only counter-intuitive advice.
“I said, ‘I kind of feel like I’ve forgotten how to be onstage and how to perform,’ ” Jillette said. “And Piff was very supportive. he said, ‘You have. You have no chance, you’ll have no idea where you are, you’ll be completely disoriented, you won’t even know how to stand onstage.’ ”
Jillette also told Piff of six new tricks the duo developed over the past year. “I said, ‘We figure, we don’t remember the old stuff, we might as well do new stuff.’ And Piff says, ‘You’re out of your (expletive) minds.’ But, then again, we’re known for stuff like that.”
Apart from the theater’s seating plot, the show’s structure is altered due to the pandemic. P&T are not using any audience participation, tabling several popular bits. It means that COVID, the proverbial elephant in the corner, has taken out the show’s actual elephant, Elsie The African Spotted Pygmy Elephant.
A mix of humor and a mind-blowing illusion, the segment requires several audience members to hold hands and form a ring around the caged animal onstage. Not to spoil the routine, which will eventually return, a drape covers the cage, then drops to the stage. The result leaves your brain scrambled.
“We thought about it a lot, and decided no because audiences circling it is really what makes the trick really strong, you know?” Jillette said. “It’s a comedy bit, but the trick is supposed to hit you in the face like a baseball bat at the end. I think without that it’s just an easy trick. Surround it onstage and it’s an impossible miracle.”
Aside from that change, Jillette is not giving out too many specifics about the show.
“Remarkably, there are no card tricks. Since the audience is kind of far away we’re doing mostly new, big stuff,” Jillette said. “I mean the old stuff we’ll be doing is the little piece of tissue paper floating around, we’ll be doing plate spinning, we’ll be doing fire-eating monologues.”
Penn & Teller have kept remarkably active offstage during COVID, recording the eighth season of “Fool Us” on The CW and with such online ventures as inviting 25 magicians to perform “The Ambitious Card Trick” on YouTube. Penn is also part of the Cameo community, offering custom messages at $135 a pop on the online service.
But there is no replacing the feel of live performance, where Penn & Teller have flourished for decades in Las Vegas since their debut at Bally’s Celebrity Room in January 1993. In January, they passed their 20th anniversary at the Rio.
Over the years, Caesars Entertainment officials have investigated moving the show into one of its Las Vegas Strip venues (Flamingo Showroom and Paris Las Vegas could take the show). Penn & Teller on a Strip marquee would certainly drive business, but the duo have consistently resisted. They like the Rio theater’s high ceilings, comfortable seating and clear sightlines.
They like the name, too.
“The Penn & Teller Theater is a good theater, and it has such a convenient name,” Jillette said. “It’s easy to remember, you know? I know where to go.”
It’s suggested that Penn & Teller are fortunate another magic show has not moved into the Penn & Teller Theater.
“Well, as long as it was David Copperfield, I’d be happy,” Jillette said, laughing. “I mean, David Copperfield at the Penn & Teller Theater would make me happy. I just don’t think we’re going to see it.”
Not likely. Penn & Teller at the Rio is a title that works, and now, once more, so do the stars.
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.
PENN & TELLER
Where: Rio, Penn & Teller Theater.
When: 9 p.m. April 22-25, 29-30; May 1-2, 6-8, 28-31; June 3-6, 10-13.
Tickets: Starting at $60 (without fees).
Information: Any Caesars Entertainment box office, 702.777.2782, 855.234-7469, or www.caesars.com/shows.