Teller conjures the magic in 'Macbeth'

Washington Post

RED BANK, N.J. -- For a guy who gets paid plenty not to talk, Teller -- the silent half of the magic team Penn & Teller -- puts a lot of stock in the importance of words. Or at least that's the impression he gives when immersed in the job of directing Shakespeare.

Yes, you heard right. These days, when Teller has not been performing with his large, loquacious partner in their standing 46-weeks-a year gig at the Rio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, he's been hanging out on the stage and in the rehearsal halls of a little theater company in this old business hub close to the Jersey Shore.

The project -- the obsession -- is an illusion- and blood-filled production of the Shakespearean tragedy "Macbeth," a production that Teller, 59, in a sense has been working on all his life. And now -- in directorial collaboration with Aaron Posner, the artistic head of Red Bank's Two River Theater Company -- the professional magician is applying his sleight-of-hand skills to a play chockablock with ghosts and witches and other aspects of the supernatural that seem a natural showcase for his peculiar talents.

"People who have come to see it have said to me, 'The show feels exactly like you,' " Teller remarks over an impromptu lunch a few days into the Red Bank run. The look on his impish features suggests a kind of studious pleasure. "They say to me, 'It's like being inside your head.' "

The next stop for this "Macbeth," after concluding its stay in New Jersey on Sunday, is Washington at the Folger Theatre, a full partner in the venture, Feb. 28 through April 13.

A measure of the interest in Teller's participation as co-director is that the production is garnering a level of heavyweight attention that rarely accrues to Shakespeare at a regional theater. The Wall Street Journal and NPR, for instance, have weighed in with feature articles, and producers from New York have been spotted in the Two River audience.


That bloody Shakespeare

Posner, soon to complete his first season as Two River's artistic director, is not a stranger to audiences at Folger, where he's staged a number of Shakespeare's plays. Most notably, he directed a moving and innovative "Measure for Measure" there in 2006, an adaptation that firmly stamped him as a thoughtful interpreter of the Bard. Posner's "Measure" standout, Ian Merrill Peakes, signed on as this Macbeth, and another Folger stalwart, Kate Eastwood Norris, was cast as his Lady Macbeth.

No matter how much Elizabethan experience these artists bring to the enterprise, though, the version has quickly come to be regarded as Teller's "Macbeth." And although some ticket holders arrive at Two River's handsome headquarters on Bridge Avenue imagining something like a magic act in iambic pentameter, Teller's wand is waved only sparingly over the proceedings.

"There's nothing in the production," Teller explains, "that Shakespeare doesn't place before us."

Posner, who worked in theater in Philadelphia for many years, and Teller, who comes from that city, met there a decade ago at the Arden Theatre, where Posner was directing a production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and Teller, a friend of another of the Arden's founders, agreed to help provide ideas. But the Shakespeare that Teller had fallen in love with as a kid was "Macbeth," and it was not until Posner got the job in Red Bank that the two could set in motion their plan for a version of "the Scottish play" that mined all its horror-story potential.

"Teller loves reading the text out loud," Posner observes, with no irony intended. "He loves the words. So we read the play to each other and just talked it through and said, 'Where are the key moments?' "

Accustomed too to the sophisticated technical resources of Las Vegas and Hollywood, Teller was not immediately on the same wavelength as the show-on-a-shoestring theater people. "Teller didn't seem to understand," Posner says with a laugh, "that an eight-hour design meeting isn't the norm."

Soon, however, thanks to Teller, the staff was being supplemented by an unusually experienced roster of helpers: a magic consultant, Matthew Holtzclaw; a mask and special-effects makeup designer, Frank Ippolito, whose credits include "Pirates of the Caribbean"; a New York composer, Kenny Wollesen, who created a cool percussive score. A cutler was even hired, to custom-forge the swords of the Scottish nobles.

It would be unfair to give away any of the tricks Teller has devised for this "Macbeth." Suffice to say that some of the most famous illusions associated with the history of magic acts have been adapted here. Which is to say that some characters vanish and some objects levitate.

When Teller had to return to Vegas during "Macbeth" rehearsals, it fell to Holtzclaw, a New York actor, playwright and magician, to train the actors -- to get them comfortable with the techniques of illusion-making. "The question was, how do you do intense emotion while hitting these specific marks, to make these tricks happen?" Holtzclaw explains.

For an actress as experienced with Shakespeare as Norris, the technical rigors of this "Macbeth" added a level of challenge, sometimes arduous, sometimes downright fun. In one particularly famous scene, Lady Macbeth has some serious guilt issues to deal with, manifested in her terror at an inability to wash spots of blood off her hands. Fittingly, Posner and Teller's "Macbeth" makes the moment especially vivid and horrifying, with the application of heaping amounts of you-know-what. "We tried like nine different sprayers," Norris recalls of the efforts to approximate those damned spots.


The play's the thing

Norris and Peakes say that although they were excited by the buzz around the production -- "This might be the biggest show I've ever done," the actress says -- they harbored some initial concern that this not turn into merely a "Magic Macbeth." Once they heard from Teller himself, that worry subsided. "And Kate and I," Peakes adds, "aren't the kind of people who would have a show taken from us."

It would, it seems, mortify Teller if anyone thought he was anything but absolutely devoted to the sanctity of the material. Even so, in deference to the reputation of Penn & Teller as irreverent debunkers of superstition, he says that he invokes the title of the play -- considered bad luck by actors -- inside the theater at every opportunity. And his partner, Penn Jillette, he notes, broke another taboo by sending Teller a bouquet of peacock feathers on opening night.

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