You sit onstage in a spot-lit hot seat, four cardboard boxes dangling 15 feet above your sweating brow. Each box is numbered, one through four. Inside one of those boxes sits a long-haired Chihuahua dressed in a pint-sized dragon costume; the other three are empty. You have no idea which box contains the precious pooch.
Cut to the man standing beside you. He, too, is clad in a dragon costume (though it’s a little bit larger than pint-sized). He asks you to choose a box. You close your eyes, say a quick Hail Mary and pick box number two. On cue, box number two crashes to the floor, where a lovely (yet violent) stage assistant promptly stomps it into oblivion. No dog.
You breathe a sigh of relief, but now the stakes are higher. Which box doesn’t contain the helpless little guy? Wincing, you pick box four. Again, the box plummets downward where, again, the fierce femme bashes the cardboard in with a baseball bat. You crack one eye to assess the damage. No dog.
Two boxes left. You’ve got this. 50% chance of that cute canine frolicking free. But wait — what is that maniac wheeling onto the stage? Is that a woodchipper?
Yes, yes, it is. The Woodchipper of Destiny, in fact.
Now, whichever box you choose is going to drop directly into the gnashing metal teeth of a machine meant to destroy anything that gets close. On your cue, box one drops into the woodchipper and tiny shredded bits of paper and cardboard shoot across the stage — no apparent dog bits in sight.
The dragon-man pulls box three to the ground, unwraps it and pulls out the pup, unscathed and surprisingly untraumatized considering he just spent five minutes sealed inside a cardboard box.
The canicidal maniac is called Piff the Magic Dragon and his obliviously trusting canine companion is Mr. Piffles, and together they are an occasionally death-defying comedic duo who perform all manner of magic while entertaining the crowd with dry wit (Piff) and sheer cuteness (Mr. Piffles).
After a brilliant turn on season 10 of “America’s Got Talent,” where he wowed the judges with his prestidigitation, the London-born John van der Put started a residency at The Flamingo in Las Vegas. There, he entertains audiences nightly with his particularly dry brand of deadpan, self-deprecating humor (a necessity when you’re in your late 30s and wearing a giant green, red and yellow dragon costume) and his magic act, which has been praised as “stunningly good” by none other than Penn and Teller, who know a thing or two about magic.
And this Saturday, June 15, Piff is bringing his Lucky Dragon Tour (and Mr. Piffles) to the Key West Theater (512 Eaton St.). In advance of his show, Piff dragon-dialed me from Las Vegas for a quick chat.
For Piff, moving from drizzly London to sunny Las Vegas was a no-brainer. “I’m a cold-blooded dragon,” he begins, “so basking in the desert sun in Las Vegas has been perfect. And for Mr. Piffles, the rescue dog from Dundee, the desert is a dream.”
Aside from being the unwitting participant in many of Piff’s acts, Mr. Piffles is also Piff’s best friend, though it wasn’t exactly dragon love at first sight. “We’ve been together nine years now,” Piff explains. “The magic act was my idea and I thought, ‘I’ll get this dog because it’ll be funny.’ The first month, I thought, ‘This is a terrible idea, what have I done?’ But living in London, slowly over the next year we became perfect buddies. It was like a cop buddy movie — you start out hating each other and by the end you’re inseparable.”
At this point, being onstage is second nature for the mini-dragon. So much so that when Piff was touring with Mumford & Sons on their 2012 tour, he recalls, “We did a show in front of 20,000 screaming fans and I looked in my case and Mr. Piffles was fast asleep.”
Needless to say, Piff and Mr. Piffles are two-of-a-kind in their field. As opposed to run-of-the mill magic tricks and stand-up routines, the magiciancum comedian schtick is not exactly a road that has been hoed by generations of Piff ’s forebears (even if you ignore the dragon part). “Our act has come over a lot of years,” Piff says. “Mainly it’s like, if you could do magic what would be the funniest thing you could do with it? I found that developing our act has been mostly about putting in the time and braving the risks to try something different. In magic, it comes down to do you want to do other people’s tricks or do you want to develop your own? Me and the dog spend a lot of time developing our own ideas and then you have to work out how to make it happen and take it in front of an audience.”
Though Piff was already highly respected in the magic community, his stint on “America’s Got Talent” (where he made it into the top ten) solidified his master magician status. Especially after an episode where Neil Patrick Harris, who also dabbles in magic, was so impressed with the act that he sent Piff directly to the finale.
“Neil Patrick Harris really knows his stuff when it comes to magic,” Piff says. “So when stuff like that is happening, that’s a big honor and big deal. Really that’s what makes all of those hours alone in the Piff Cave worth it.”
Dry though his humor may be, Piff truly loves what he does and audiences can tell. “I love being on stage every night, thinking up these crazy ideas and unleashing them on an audience,” he says. “Plus it helps that I’m in a market apart — I am simultaneously the best and the worst magic dragon audiences have ever seen.”
As for Key West, Piff and Mr. Piffles are looking forward to their journey to the end of the road. “In the summer, we spend most of our time in Vegas,” Piff explains. “It’s kind of our break — we only go on tour for very special people, like to Florida where it’s just as hot. And we’ll be coming out with a lot more magic tricks over the next few months, so it should be an exciting show.”
At this point, Mr. Piffles unleashes a furious flurry of terrifying barks, after which Piff deadpans, “Well, this is awkward. Mr. Piffles just killed three postmen.” I excuse him to go clean up the devastation, but I imagine the memory of my conversation with the magic dragon will linger long past the bloodstains in the Piff Cave’s foyer.
Piff the Magic Dragon and Mr. Piffles will perform at the Key West Theater at 512 Eaton St. on Saturday, June 15, at 8 p.m. Purchase tickets at www.thekeywesttheater.com or by calling the box office at 305-985-0433. ¦