Outside the tent, a desert tempest rages. Inside, it smells like circus elephants. The floor is dirt, formerly the lawn just outside The Smith Center. But all around, it’s Shakespeare’s world.
Welcome to rehearsals for a very peculiar production of The Tempest, about five weeks before opening night. The vibe is laid-back creative chaos, with a homespun feel. The set looks like a Depression-era Coney Island carnival sideshow. Heck, the whole stage appears to have been left outside during the Dust Bowl, giving it a sort of marooned-chic appeal. It looks like a found object, a treasure that washed up onto a beach fully formed, peeking from the sand.
An elfin magician paces the lot, disappearing and reappearing with a small bouquet of plastic flowers. He will play the airy spirit Ariel. An actor practices twisting and tossing a fedora on his head. A dwarf who will play Trinculo the jester chats by the water cooler. Several dancers stretch and contort on a gymnastics crash pad while following along the dialogue for Act V in open notebooks. An orange cherry picker looms in the back corner of the tent.
The famously silent magician Teller, of Penn & Teller fame, is curled up on the stairs leading up to the stage. He watches intently. From close range, he looks cuddly, like a little boy in footie pajamas observing his parents’ grown-up party. But he’s not as short as one would imagine from photos of him next to the 6-foot-6 Penn Jillette. Nor is Teller, at 66, any sort of child. In fact, Teller is one of the most grown-up grown-ups you will ever meet. The erudite tea-drinker is Las Vegas’ most under-the-radar public intellectual. He writes book reviews for The New York Times and makes movies about art techniques, such as the just-released Tim’s Vermeer. And he loves Shakespeare.
“Most people’s first contact with Shakespeare is an English class, and there couldn’t be a worse place to encounter Shakespeare,” Teller says. “To read Shakespeare is like handing an orchestral score to a teenage kid and saying, ‘Now imagine this symphony.’ This is just the directions for the performers; this is not something you were meant to read.”
Teller intends to right this theatrical wrong through a dream-team collaboration with director Aaran Posner, the American Repertory Theater, the Connecticut-based Pilobolus dance company, and songwriting duo Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. In addition to conjuring the concept with Posner, Teller is co-directing the play and creating the magic. This version of The Tempest will be, as Teller wrote in a letter to patrons, “Harry Potter exacting vigilante justice with illusions.”
“We’re doing the play how Shakespeare would have done if he’d had the technical capacity to do magic this heavily,” Teller says. “In conventional productions of The Tempest, people just talk and walk on and off the stage. In our version, if they should appear, they appear. If they should disappear, they disappear. If they should transform from one person to another or levitate, they do that.”
“The Tempest is Shakespeare’s great play about magic. So who better in the world to think about a great magician than Teller? It’s a perfect match,” says Stephen Greenblatt, a Harvard Shakespeare professor and longtime friend of Teller. The professor plans to take his students to see this production when it moves to Cambridge, Massachusetts, after its Las Vegas debut. “One of the odd things about Shakespeare’s play is that Prospero’s magic comes from a very intense engagement in books. One of the things that strikes anybody about Teller is that for a popular entertainer he’s an unusually learned man, so there’s that connection.”
Teller has spent half his life contemplating The Tempest, and he has no small ambitions for this play. “If we pull it off, it could be a stunningly beautiful thing,” he says. “It could very well be the very best Tempest ever—including Shakespeare’s. It could certainly be the very best Tempest of our time.”
The Monkey Room backstage at the Rio is a visual timeline of the duo’s success. The elaborate green room is both intimate and public, like a model home if it were built by a circus. There’s zebra-print furniture and surrealist touches: a table with mannequin lady legs and a gilded mirror sprouting feminine arms. Today there is also a cake from the casino on the coffee table (a glass slab supported by reclining monkey statues) because it is Penn’s 59th birthday.
The simian theme seems to be both a reference to the duo’s belief in atheism and evolution as well as an acknowledgement that we’re all performing monkeys—not just the two magicians, but all of us, the celebrities, the journalists, the lady who delivers pre-show sandwiches on a rolling cart, the unseen audience that will fill the 1,450-seat showroom in the Penn & Teller Theater.
The red walls of the green room are adorned with memorabilia from their epic career. Photos show Penn & Teller with David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Liberace, Run-DMC (smirking on the set of the rappers’ 1986 music video “It’s Tricky,” in which the magicians starred). TV stills reveal their pop cultural reach: dumping 500 live cockroaches on David Letterman’s desk; performing a trick with Madonna on Saturday Night Live; Teller playing a pet cat in an episode of the sitcom Dharma & Greg.
In the middle of the celebrity display is a large abstract painting by Teller’s artist father, Joe Teller. “Not his best work,” Teller says, “but it matched the colors of the room.”
On another wall hang the Playbills and fliers from the early days—before their 20 years in Vegas, back when they had no solidified logo, when it was just their names and the phrase “bad boys of magic.” Going back even further is the framed memorabilia from the ’70s, when it was Penn, Teller and Wier Chrisemer as the Asparagus Valley Cultural Society, offering “magic, music, juggling & comedy” with the tagline: “Three deeply troubled young men who think it’s funny” and advertising “100 needles swallowed, Bach on xylophone, knives juggled.” Chrisemer had top billing.
“Teller is certainty one of the top five magical minds alive,” Penn says. “By the way, I am not on that list.” Penn is famous for saying that he has no affection for Teller. In his typical style, he repeats a bombastic discounting of their personal relationship while complimenting Teller’s talent, professionalism and work ethic. “[It’s] strictly cold, cerebral, intellectual, calculated on both our parts,” he says.
“Now, after a lifetime of working together, he is my closest friend, I suppose. We don’t slide into that very often—our parents’ death, my children’s births, that might be about it. … I would say one night a week, after the show we’re both eating our supper, no one is around, we might chat a little bit. … The Penn & Teller story really does lack romance. There’s no Martin and Lewis, no Lennon and McCartney ups and downs. No Jagger and Richards hating each other and coming back. It’s just two guys plodding along. We’re not geniuses, we’re just worker bees. We’re a partnership for one simple reason: We believe we do better stuff together than we do separately. The Tempest is an exception to that. Let’s say that I do better stuff with Teller than I do alone.”
(Teller generally shares Penn’s views on their alliance: “I’ve worked with Penn for nearly 40 years, and we disagree about everything all the time. And I think that’s wonderful, because if you get two people who agree all the time you’re not going to get something better than either of them can achieve.”)
Behind Penn’s grandstanding hides a true admiration for his partner: “So much of what makes Penn & Teller Penn & Teller is Teller. The visual aspect and the taste is so much Teller. If we didn’t have each other, Teller might still be a Latin teacher doing wonderful magic on the side. I would probably be a morning DJ.”
Since, according to Penn, Teller is the “visual one,” it seems logical that he designed this Monkey Room. But with magicians, deceit is commonplace.
“Even this room is a lie,” Teller says. “It was designed by a reality show.”
“I dreamed I was Prospero, and I dreamed that the way I controlled my enemies was by changing the world around them with my shows. I dreamed I could make you behave differently by making you see something other than this room around you. I wasn’t acting directly on you; I was changing the world as you perceive it. That’s all I remember of it. I don’t remember any plot, just that one strange element. That’s always been in the back of my mind as one of the interpretations of this play.”
In high school, Teller memorized and performed Prospero’s “Ye Elves of Hills” monologue for a drama competition. “When [the actor who plays] Prospero is going over that speech and misses a word, I’m the one instantly cueing him,” Teller says, “because I’ve known it since I was 15.”
The monologue comes toward the end of The Tempest; in it, the wizard considers his magical accomplishments (“Graves at my command have waked their sleepers … by my so potent art”) and then decides to forfeit his powers in order to take care of his daughter, Miranda (“But this rough magic I here abjure … I’ll break my staff … I’ll drown my book.”).
A pre-silent Teller won the drama competition and went on to remember the wizard’s heartbreak forever. “That’s where this play tugs at me—to think about what it would take for me to give up magic,” Teller says. “You can see how much I love doing this. What would it take for me to give that up and say this other thing is more important? I don’t have children, and I don’t intend to because I don’t think I could do this with this much gusto if I had to consider real life.”
So you chose magic over Miranda?
“Yes, but I chose magic over having Miranda,” he says. “If I’d had Miranda, my decision may have been very different.”
Posner: “It’s been a series of concentric circles opening out. It took us well over a year to cast this show in a variety of cities. We have a constant guide and beacon, which is Shakespeare. Even the coolest magic trick, most brilliant movement piece, even the best song might go away if it doesn’t get to the center of the story we’re telling.”
Teller: “I’ve seen a lot of productions of this play that are awful. It’s not an awful play, but it’s a play that’s confusing if you don’t take a lot of trouble. When an audience comes in, they shouldn’t have to work. We should do all the work for them. We should make it easy for them to know who is whom, what’s going on, what people’s purpose is. And they should laugh a lot.”
Posner: “I would disagree, as we do a lot, in the best possible way. I disagree that we want to do all the work for the audience. I want to make sure that the audience has a clear way in and that we are taking care of them. But I want to make sure that we are enlisting their imaginations in a really unique and effective way.”
Kent: “We’re talking into the wind a little bit. We’re not doing something that’s mapped out already, which I think is the purpose of having people who have different ways of thinking.”
When discussing the production, Teller is serious, precise, strict even. A bit of that old high school teacher comes out. Then Posner says that he wants to comment on record about Teller and Kent, but he doesn’t want them to hear. Suddenly, Teller is playful. He holds up a flannel shirt as an impromptu curtain and hums and dances a small jig behind it, while Posner, the unintentional straight man, whispers earnestly about Kent’s and Teller’s genius. “We have a lot of geniuses working on this show,” Posner says. “Shakespeare, Tom Waits, Teller and Matt [Kent]—I would put all of them in the genius category. I am a craftsperson taking that genius and making sure it stays as a cohesive whole.”
The post-show chatter in line for the women’s restroom is laudatory. In the lobby, crowds of delighted fans encircle Penn and Teller for their habitual meet and greet. The two performers stand a distance away from each other to make room for all the people; they are twin suns with their own orbiting solar systems. Penn’s star is slightly larger, but Teller’s admirers are no less ardent. Despite his silent stage persona, Teller chats with fans, charms them, holds their cellphone cameras and clicks countless group selfies, saying that he “knows his role.”
When the last fan has been greeted, Teller crosses the cavernous lobby and passes through an inconspicuous door that leads backstage and to his dressing room—much smaller and messier than the Monkey Room, a cozy place with mirrors, a closet and posters for some of his past shows. There’s the 2008 production of Macbeth, Teller’s first collaboration with Posner. There’s Play Dead, the magical spook show he created with sideshow master Todd Robbins, which ran off-Broadway, then at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse and is now being pitched for TV.
Having changed from his signature gray suit into comfy clothes and with a very frothy cappuccino in hand, Teller reiterates his desire to make a “Tempest for everybody.” Considering his magical explanation of physics, this goal seems quite plausible. Assuming the role of the anti-teacher (one who nonetheless won’t hesitate to correct your grammar), Teller describes how he and Posner cut down and clarified Shakespeare’s “upholstered language,” which was purposefully repetitive to accommodate the chaotic environment of the 1600s-era theater. “Shakespeare puts the same idea in three or four times, so if you happen to miss it because you were being solicited by a hooker, you would still know where you are in the play,” Teller says.
Take the scene, for example, when Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, gets engaged to Prince Ferdinand. As an engagement gift, Prospero puts on a show for the young couple. “In the traditional version, Prospero calls on spirits that represent Roman goddesses, and they sing and recite,” Teller says. “It’s very nice, but it’s not very good for today’s audience.”
In place of “endless couplets about procreation and spring,” Teller’s Tempest offers a father-daughter magic act in which Prospero levitates his daughter and while she’s floating, presents her hand to Ferdinand. “It’s like the two of them have worked on a magic show for many years and this is her last performance,” Teller says. “It’s bittersweet and extremely beautiful, and it’s done to the exquisite Waits song called ‘Shiny Things.’ It’s this song about how crows collect things that are precious to them to put in their nest, and that’s the way the singer wants to regard the person being sung to—as the precious thing in the nest. It’s perfect from the first moment we pantomimed it in our workshop. We all just sat in the auditorium and wept.”
Teller stirs his coffee, which turns out not to be coffee at all but cottage cheese. At this quiet moment, the magician’s triumph is most apparent: The Philadelphia-raised man who shortened his name from Raymond Joseph Teller in college is hanging out backstage after headlining a long-running residency in Las Vegas; framed fan art covers a nearby wall.
This is superstardom on a harpsichord-loving intellectual’s own terms: Teller is living the life that his late mentor, high school drama teacher David G. Rosenbaum—Teller calls him Rosey—had envisioned for him (and perhaps even wished for himself). Teller describes Rosey as “this very deep friend and mentor who had always been there with his glass of grain alcohol and Coca-Cola and cigarettes and looking like the devil himself.” He was “a magician who loved The Tempest, who loved Macbeth, [who taught me to] think about magic theoretically and to think about magic, theater and acting as one thing.”
“Teller saw himself—and, I think, justifiably—as among the greats,” Rosenbaum told The New Yorker’s Calvin Trillin for a 1989 profile of Penn & Teller, back when Teller’s status as “among the greats” was not yet solidified. “The single name has something to do with that: There was a great magician named Heller and a great magician named Kellar. The kind of success that Teller’s vision insisted upon seems too grandiose to be possible. It looks like a fantasy. You need gall to think you can do it.”
Trillin credits Penn with having “gall enough for two,” but certainly Rosey’s influence was just as important. For three years, Teller was “jumpy, irritable, a little paranoid” after his mentor died. But even though Rosey is not here to see the vastness of Teller’s artistic empire, he was able to witness “that cardinal moment of our careers” when Penn & Teller debuted off-Broadway in 1985. Rosey performed as opening-night entertainment, playing “Satan masquerading as a party magician.”
Teller talks until he is visibly exhausted and his melodious voice falters. It’s after midnight. Tomorrow he has a 10 a.m. meeting with co-director Posner, press events and rehearsals until 8 p.m. Then it’s back to the Rio for his 9 p.m. show. “Spare time is nonexistent between now and April 4,” he says. “If you’re a friend of mine, consider me away on tour.”
“Tonight I am real good at it,” he says. “I’ve been good at it for three or four days now. But when I first did it, I would get a misfire. Magic is not a forgiving art form. It’s a miracle or it’s ludicrous. There is no middle point, no almost-miracle. An almost-miracle is ludicrous.”
Teller is a man of full-on miracles. Johnny Thompson, Penn & Teller’s 79-year-old magic consultant, knows this best. He’s also probably the only person in the world who views Teller, an only child, as a little brother. “I’m always safe in inventing something for him,” Thompson says, “because I know he can do it, no matter how difficult it is.”
Few people get to see one of Teller’s most intricate feats: his home. Teller’s angular desert house is like Prospero’s island. It’s the haunted wizard’s lair in the wilderness. It’s also a reflection of the magician son of an artist father. Teller loves shape and form and symmetry; his home is filled with architectural magic. There’s a hallway built to look longer than it is, leading some guests to walk into the wall. The dining room table features a skeleton that screams when stretched. There’s a Houdini room with no visible exits, a moving bookcase, magic books galore and a talking bear statue in the backyard that guesses the card in your pocket.
Teller’s visitors often sample his pancakes, waffles or custards. Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim ate his pear-almond waffles. Tempest co-director Posner had a pumpkin flan from a recipe Teller found in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Penn & Teller’s production consultant Joel Fischman sampled carrot waffles during a business meeting. And when Fischman’s daughter got married, Teller sent her a waffle-maker as a wedding present.
“I don’t have it in me to be a real chef, but the area of breakfasts foods is a manageable area to become an expert in,” says Teller, who owns two different sizes of waffle irons. “So one of my few things in the real world that I deal with competently is the making of breakfast foods. And I like to know—in the same way that I like you to see the band onstage—the materials in my breakfast foods. I do not like to buy pancake mixes. People are endlessly sending me gifts of pancake mixes.”
This month, as part of a charity campaign, Hash House a Go Go is serving Teller’s recipe for honey-orange pancakes. They are made with yogurt, flour, honey, orange juice and orange zest, but Teller says Hash House’s version doesn’t taste the same as when he makes them at home. “I’m not sure that they use as much honey as I do,” Teller says. “You put a pancake that has a lot of honey in it on a griddle so it slightly burns, so it has a little edge of bitterness that goes with the sweetness of the pancake. I’m not sure they quite got that right.”
Trust Teller to always work until he gets it just right. “It’s the satisfaction of being able to make something that’s beautifully delicious that you can then devour,” he says. “It’s an artistic satisfaction.”
Tom Nelis—the tall, elegant actor who plays Prospero—is not a magician. But Teller and his team work continually to help him learn what Teller calls “some fairly difficult magic.” It involves sleight of hand and juggling while acting in a pivotal scene. The team choreographs the magic to the actor’s natural stance and movements. But even with the aid of expert magicians, it all comes down to one thing for Nelis: practice.
“We were in there yesterday, and he was doing this [difficult] trick he does with his wand at the end of the show,” Teller says. “He was over to one side doing it over and over again. I came to him and worked with him for a while. I went away, came back, worked on it for a while [longer]. These things are things you have to learn and get in your blood and do them a zillion times. We don’t keep the props there. We say, ‘Take that home with you, and while you’re watching TV, do it another 200 times.’ It’s the only way to do it.”
April 1-27, The Smith Center, $25 and up, 749-2000, TheSmithCenter.com.