Teller Works His Magic In Production Of 'The Tempest'

Jul 1, 2014
Originally published on June 2, 2014 3:11 pm

For the past few years, Teller — the usually silent half of the Las Vegas illusion duo Penn & Teller — has been conjuring an ambitious theatrical collaboration.

It’s a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s fantasy “The Tempest,” with a live band, acrobatic choreography and hefty doses of magic.

From the Here & Now Contributors Network, WBUR’s Andrea Shea dropped by rehearsal at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge to find out more.


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For the past few years, Teller - the usually silent half of the Las Vegas illusion twosome Penn and Teller - has been talking about and conjuring up an ambitious theatrical collaboration - a reimagining of Shakespeare's fantasy "The Tempest" with a live band, acrobatic choreography and hefty doses of magic. The play is currently in a run at the American Rep Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts. From the HERE AND NOW Contributors Network, WBUR's Andrea Shea has more.

ANDREA SHEA, BYLINE: Eerie blue lighting casts a glow on a pack of theater professionals huddling on stage. They look like a coven of sorcerers trying to figure out how to incorporate a thing called an Ocean Drum into their new staging of "The Tempest." It's shaped like a large double-sided tambourine, but it sounds like waves crashing onto the shore.

Shakespeare's tale follows Prospero, the ousted Duke of Milan who's shipwrecked on an enchanted island with his daughter Miranda. He uses powerful trickery to trap then torment his enemies. Teller, a career illusionist, whose voice you've probably never heard before says for years he's fantasized about retelling Prospero's story.

TELLER: Shakespeare wrote one play that's about a magician. And it seemed like about time to realize that with all the capabilities of the modern magic in the theater.

SHEA: And Teller notes Shakespeare even wrote instructions for the use of magic.

TELLER: Our playwright has said, and with a quaint device the beast vanishes. Now, quaint device is Shakespearean lingo for trick or, you know, gaffes or gimmick. That's language that I understand.

AARON POSNER: Putting magic at the center of a play about a magician doesn't seem like that radical a choice. But in the history, at least the modern history of producing "The Tempest," it is a fairly radical choice.

SHEA: And not the easiest choice, says Teller's co-director and co-adapter, Aaron Posner.

POSNER: When people have run into the magic, they often use gobo rotators so that the lights will move. And we go, oh, the lights are moving. That's very magical. Or they cut it. Or they do really less than satisfying versions.


SHEA: Posner and Teller hope to surprise audiences with their "Tempest" while staying true to the Bard's intent. Scene one opens with a live band high above the stage. Actors in fisherman's rain gear climb a ladder. Then Prospero and his spirit servant Ariel conjure the wild storm.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Ariel) Master, ahead.

TOM NELLIS: (As Prospero) The storm approaches.

POSNER: This whole production has been a major balancing act, following Shakespeare's lead always. He wrote a magical play. He wrote a musical play - put a lot of music into it. He wrote monsters. And he wrote a very moving story line, with it includes love and revenge and forgiveness. So he wrote a lot of things. It was his last play. He was pretty good by this point.

SHEA: To get the magic right, the co-directors turned to someone even more seasoned than Teller - a virtuoso of illusion in Vegas.

TELLER: This is Johnny Thompson sitting next to me who's our magic designer on the show, who, when you say, Johnny, for some vanity of Prospero's art, we need to levitate Miranda on stage.

JOHNNY THOMPSON: I never thought I'd be working on a Shakespearean play. It's, for me, wonderful.

SHEA: Thompson has worked with Penn and Teller in Vegas for about 15 years. Now 80, he's performed sleight-of-hand illusions in the gambling town's French revues, bars and trade shows. In the magic community, Thompson is known as a mentor, consultant and inventor of tricks.

THOMPSON: The magic is not just put in for the sake of adding magic to the show. It really enhances and furthers the exposition of the play.

SHEA: That creators say the music and the monsters do that, too. Musician Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, gave Teller access to their catalog of gritty songs. The island's creatures are brought to life by Pilobolus, a dance company known for piling performers on top of each other.

MATT KENT: Too much. Just get your pelvis on it and just like - you know.

SHEA: Pilobolus's Matt Kent has worked as a zombie choreographer for AMC's series "The Walking Dead" and fashioned Caliban, Prospero's deformed and eloquent slave for "The Tempest." The monster is made up of two dancers stuck together like conjoined twins. Then there are the actors playing human characters, including Tom Nellis as Prospero.

NELLIS: I could levitate you here, or I could make you disappear. I've learned a few things that are going to come in handy after this show.

SHEA: Nellis calls himself a magic novice and modestly gives credit to the creative experts.

NELLIS: But really, when they start to work it's hilarious because they all gather around and have different energy about them then actors. And they meticulously pick apart the illusion until they get it just right. And it's been an education.

SHEA: On stage the creative team fusses with Prospero's robes. It's clear how connected Teller feels to Shakespeare's magician and the craft of magic.

TELLER: He's deeply in love with it. But what he realizes is is that in order to do right by his daughter, he has to give it up. So as somebody's who's been doing magic since I was 5 - and I'm 66 right now - the very thought of giving up magic is a profoundly scary, melancholy, rich thing that just grabs me at the center of where it live.

SHEA: Tell even recalls memorizing Prospero's words when he was in high school. Now, he looks forward to hearing gasps from the audience during "The Tempest" run in Cambridge before the usually quiet illusionist heads back to Vegas. For HERE AND NOW, I'm Andrea Shea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.