Teller, Casting a Dark Spell
Sunday, February 10, 2008
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 a week from today, is Washington; and Folger Theatre, which is a full partner in the venture, is splitting all the costs with Two River down the middle. (No one would say how much, although Folger officials assert that the offering is only a bit more expensive than usual.)
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.
Another measure: Folger has extended the play's run on Capitol Hill a full week -- it begins performances Feb. 28 and now closes April 13 -- even before a single Washingtonian has seen it.
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, the fact is that 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 some 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?' "