The set of The Tempest, as magically reimagined by Teller
“Vegas is the magic capital of the world by anyone’s standards,” says Teller, the not-silent-off-stage half of the celebrated magic duo Penn & Teller. And if “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” as the magician Prospero states in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, then Vegas is where magic makes those dreams real.
The Tempest has the usual elements of Shakespearean drama—romance, rivalry, retribution, redemption—but one component never gets top billing, despite being the primary force driving the plot: magic. Enter Teller.
Co-produced by the Smith Center and Cambridge, Massachusetts’s American Repertory Theater, Teller’s fantastical reimagining of The Tempest debuts April 6 at Symphony Park. For this show, he has teamed up again with esteemed theater director Aaron Posner. The two previously worked together on a 2008 production of Macbeth, which they staged as a supernatural horror thriller, using magic to allow the audience inside the minds of the Macbeths and to become part of their hallucinations.
Teller was inspired to rework The Tempest while reading a biography of magician Harry Willard, known as “Willard the Wizard,” who toured Texas and nearby states during the Great Depression with his daughter, a circus caravan, and a 2,000-person tent. So what does that have to do with Shakespeare’s exiled Milanese duke? “This tent kind of felt like an island,” says Teller, “kind of like Prospero on the island with his daughter.”
The Tempest opens with the title storm, conjured by Prospero to seek vengeance against those who exiled him. In addition to his daughter and the shipwrecked aristocrats, the island is filled with phantoms and sprites, as well as a dead witch and her monster son, Caliban, who drive much of the action. Prospero uses illusions to make his enemies see their own evil, with assistance from a magical spirit. “Other productions of The Tempest don’t take the magical components seriously,” Teller says. “[We thought to] really use magic to show the audience how disturbing these illusions would have been to these characters.”
The production also borrows design elements from the Dust Bowl era. Caliban is based on the sideshow freaks of roving carnivals in the 1930s, and the show itself takes place in a 500-person tent. Teller explains that they’re trying to keep the production “humble but still amazing. The magic tricks represent the invisible workings of the supernatural world that the characters see. We’re seeing behind the supernatural curtain.”
Teller and Posner have brought together an astounding amount of talent for this show. The choreography is by the acclaimed, inventive dance troupe Pilobolus. Tom Waits and his wife, Kathleen Brennan, have opened a large portion of their song catalogue for use in the production. And the creative team includes a Tony Award–winning costume designer, a magic craftsman who has built for Cirque du Soleil, and a percussionist whose handmade instruments have been shown in art museums.
The Tempest is the first world premiere for the Smith Center, which Teller calls “the most well-thought-out arts center in the country…. It will drive you crazy, it’s so brilliantly done.” The Tempest runs April 6–20 at Symphony Park. 702-749-2000