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For the past few years, Teller, the usually silent half of the Las Vegas illusion duo known as Penn & Teller, has been conjuring an ambitious theatrical collaboration — a re-imagining of Shakespeare’s fantasy play “The Tempest” with a live band, acrobatic choreography and hefty doses of magic. The show premiered under a big top in Las Vegas and is now on stage at and being produced by the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge.
Shakespeare’s tale follows Prospero, the ousted Duke of Milan, who has been shipwrecked on an enchanted island with his daughter Miranda. He uses powerful trickery to trap and then torment his enemies.
Teller, a career illusionist whose voice you might have not heard before, has fantasized about a retelling of Prospero’s story for years.
“Shakespeare wrote one play that’s about a magician,” Teller explained, “and it seemed like about time to realize that with all the capabilities of modern magic in the theater.”
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Teller notes Shakespeare even wrote instructions for the magic.
"Our playwright has said, 'And, with a quaint device, the feast vanishes,'" Teller recited. "Now quaint device is Shakespearean lingo for trick, or gimmick. And that's language that I understand."
"Putting magic at the center of a play about a magician doesn’t seem like that radical a choice," explained Teller's co-director and co-adapter Aaron Posner. "But in the history, at least the modern history of producing 'The Tempest,' it is a radical choice."
It's also not the easiest choice, Posner adds.
Teller and Posner are striving to surprise audiences with their version, while also staying true to the Bard’s intent.
The first scene opens with a live band on a platform high above the stage. Actors in fishing gear climb a ladder. Then Prospero and his sprightly, blond spirit servant Ariel conjure a wild storm.
“Master, ahead, the storm approaches!" a fisherman yells, and sound effects boom through the theater. Prospero and Ariel place a boat made of paper on the surface of a a large glass bowl filled with water and begin to churn it into a whirlpool.
"This whole production has been a major balancing act, following Shakespeare’s lead always,” Posner explained. “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. It includes love and vengeance and revenge and forgiveness."
To get the magic right, the co-directors turned to someone even more seasoned than Teller — Johnny Thompson, a virtuoso of illusion in Las Vegas. He is the magic designer on the show.
“I never thought I’d be working on a Shakespearean play,” the magician admitted. “It’s, for me, wonderful.”
Thompson says he’s worked with Penn & 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 — often under his stage name “The Great Tomsoni.”
“I call myself a general practitioner,” Thompson said laughing.
In the magic community, Thompson is known as a mentor, consultant and inventor of tricks.
"The magic is not just put in for the sake of adding magic to the show," Thompson explained. "It really enhances and furthers the exposition of the play."
The creators say the music and 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.
Pilobolus’s Matt Kent has worked as a “zombie choreographer” for AMC’s “The Walking Dead." For "The Tempest," he fashioned Caliban, Prospero’s deformed and eloquent slave. The monster is made up of two dancers stuck together, like joined twins.
“We put these guys through the ringer,” Kent explained. “All of these days of rehearsal are really spent literally on top of each other. It’s a like a backpack literally the size of another person and you have to walk around and deliver your lines and that kind of thing.”
Other actors have earned battle wounds too. Tom Nelis, who plays Prospero, ended up with cuts on his hands after practicing with a prop for days at home. But his hard work paid off.
“I could levitate you here. Or I could make you disappear,” Nelis mused. “I’ve learned a few things that are going to come in handy after this show.”
Nelis calls himself a magic novice and modestly gives credit to the creative experts.
"When they start to work it’s hilarious because they all gather around, and they have a different energy about them than actors, and they meticulously pick apart the illusion until they get it just right,” he explained. "And it’s been an education.”
It's clear how connected Teller feels to Shakespeare’s magician Prospero, and to the craft of magic.
“[Prospero] is deeply in love with [magic], but he realizes that in order to do right by his daughter he has to give it up," Teller said. "So as somebody 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 I live.”
Teller's grandfather, a Russian immigrant, loved English literature and gave Teller’s parents a set of Shakespeare’s plays for the house. His father told him to read “The Tempest" and in high school Teller even memorized some of Prospero's famous lines.
Now he looks forward to hearing gasps from the audience during the show's run in Cambridge, before the usually quiet illusionist heads back to Vegas.