Teller tricks out Shakespeare in ‘The Tempest’ at American Repertory Theater

Teller is pictured here introducing Caliban played by Zach Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee at a press preview in Vegas.  Credit: The Smith Center
Teller is pictured here introducing Caliban played by Zach Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee at a press preview in Vegas.
Credit:The Smith Center

For the magician who goes by the name of Teller, staging a magical version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” is a dream come true, literally.

“Somewhere in the 1970’s — 1979, I think — I bought one of those books about how to remember your dreams,” he recounts. “And I was writing them down, and one of the dreams that really sticks with me was one I dreamed where I was Prospero on this island and I was fighting my enemies by means of magic and that actually was something of revelation to me.”

Teller, who is best known as the nonverbal half of Penn and Teller, is anything but reserved in conversation, especially when it comes to this production, more than 35 years in the making. His excitement is palpable as he discusses how all of the elements came together — the words of the Bard, his own career of illusions, the complementary interests of co-adaptor and co-director Aaron Posner, the elaborate choreography of Pilobolus, the music of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan and a book about a Depression-era traveling magic troupe called “Willard: A Life Under Canvas” by David Charvet.

“I’m 66 now,” says Teller, “so I’ve been thinking I’m not going to be able to do this forever, so sooner or later I’m going to have to quit, and I thought about ‘What if someone like Willard, in the latter days of his touring decided to do a thing that had always haunted him, which is Shakespeare’s great play about a magician?’ And using the material as a way of clarifying and illuminating the scenes of the play that was the origins of where we began.”

Teller showed a photo from the book to Tom Waits, and the musician most known for his gravely carnival-barker voice was on board right away.

“Tom saw a picture of Willard’s band and the picture is black and white of five or six people on a truck bed stage with a canvas background. They all look like typical Depression-era people, their clothes somewhat loose because they’ve been hungry for a long time,” he says. “There’s a woman at the side of the stage and because there is no modern electrification, she is holding an old style megaphone to her mouth and shooting at the audience. Tom looks at this picture and says, ‘These are my people.’”

Nate Dendy plays Ariel, Tom Nelis plays Prospero and Charlotte Graham plays Miranda in "The Tempest."  Credit: Geri Kodey/The Smith Center
Nate Dendy plays Ariel, Tom Nelis plays Prospero and Charlotte Graham plays Miranda in “The Tempest.”
Credit: Geri Kodey/The Smith Center

“The Tempest”
Through June 15
Loeb Drama Center
64 Brattle St., Cambridge


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