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October 31, 2014

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Magic set is larger as Teller’s passion, ‘The Tempest,’ prepares to open at Smith Center

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L.E. Baskow

Aaron Posner and Teller, pictured here Tuesday, March 11, 2014, are co-directing “The Tempest” adapted from the play by William Shakespeare that opens next month at the Smith Center in Symphony Park.

‘The Tempest’ Rehearsal at Smith Center

Actors Manelich Minifee and Zach Eisenstat as Caliban rehearse a scene Tuesday, March 11, 2014, from “The Tempest,” which opens next month at the Smith Center in Symphony Park. Launch slideshow »
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Actors warm up onstage Tuesday, March 11, 2014, at “The Tempest,” which opens next month at the Smith Center in Symphony Park.

Click to enlarge photo

The bard, reimagined: Teller, left, with his Tempest director Aaron Posner.

It’ll be a few days before the Smith Center and American Repertory Theater's production of William Shakespeare's "The Tempest” plays to audiences inside a tent (a heavily reinforced tent, mind you) at Symphony Park.

But the show’s co-director and visionary, Teller, has already wowed one fan: Maisie Ann Posner.

Little Maisie Ann is the 2 1/2-year old daughter of the show’s other co-director and visionary, Aaron Posner. Teller and he have worked together on productions of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Macbeth” and formed a strong personal friendship and professional collaboration.

Even before Maisie Ann was born, Teller had designs on teaching her magic.

“She plays regularly with the magic kit that Teller sent to her while my wife was pregnant. This is totally true,” Posner says. “I have videos on my phone of her saying ‘Abracadabra!’ with that magic kit. She is now understanding magic.”

Magic is at the center of the plot of the “The Tempest” — as it is in Teller’s heart. It's the story of a magician across a lifetime and what it would take for a magician to give up his art. It is about the movement from vengeance to forgiveness and also about the relationship between a father and a daughter.

The show opens for previews Tuesday night in the 510-seat venue on the lawn outside Reynolds Hall and Bowman Pavilion at the Smith Center. The formal opening night is April 5, and the show is scheduled to run through April 27 (tickets are $25-$75; click here for information.

The show features music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan (“Dirt in the Ground,” “Innocent When You Dream” and “Everything You Can Think Of Is True” have been plucked for the production’s setlist) reimagined by a quartet of musicians playing antiquated instruments. The cast is topped by Tom Nelis as Prospero, Louis Butelli as Antonio, Nate Dendy as Ariel and Dawn Didawick as Gonzala. Interpretative dance movement will be furnished by Matt Kent of Pilobolus, the performance-art company founded decades ago by Moses Pendleton (widely considered one of the forerunners to the type of acrobatic artistry that Cirque du Soleil further advanced over the years).

The lineup, suffice to say, is a dream team for the co-directors. As Posner says, “If Shakespeare could have gotten Teller to perform his magic tricks in the original, he would have been thrilled. And if he were given permission by Tom Waits to use his music, he also would have been thrilled. We have the best collaborators you could ever want."

Also talking of the project, with his impressive (and largely unknown) articulation, was Teller himself. He is not onstage for the production, though is busy directing the show, and sat for a chat during a media preview of the show a few days ago. The highlights:

The idea for developing “The Tempest” has been a passion of Teller’s for decades but was advanced seriously five years ago in a hotel room at the Rio:

"I had just read a biography of Willard the Wizard, who was a touring magician during the Depression, and that’s where we first started to think about doing this,” he said. “It’s been in conversation, casually and formally, for a long time.”

The idea was always to produce the show inside a tent:

“I started to think about how similar it is to tour in a tent and live on a desert island, which the is setting of the show, because from night to night you have your little company of people who travels with you, and you move from town to town, but it’s like you’re a little independent island of people,” Teller said. “We began to think, ‘How would a magician make “The Tempest?” How would he perform “The Tempest” if he’d been doing illusions onstage all of his life? What would it be like if he were going to do a show about a magician doing a show on a desert island? One who is about to give up doing magic? How would he do it?’ And that is the wellspring behind everything that we have developed since.”

The Smith Center’s contribution made it possible for Teller to focus his energy on the production in Las Vegas:

“We had been trying to get it launched for a long time, and I guess it was on the order of two years ago when ART stepped up and said we think we want to be behind this with you guys,” Teller said. “Then the Smith Center joined in, so that enabled it to happen in Vegas, which is essential for all of the practical reasons you can think of — I have to go do my show at night, for example. If I tried to commute to Cambridge (Mass.) every day, I would be in trouble.”

Penn & Teller are preparing two new bits for their stage show at the Rio, one that is in the show and one that is about to go into the show:

“The Atheist Deck of Cards, which is a physics lecture in the form of a card trick, is in the show now. And the Vanishing African Spotted Pygmy Elephant, which I believe will be in the show in four or five weeks,” Teller said. “That’s been in development for five years (Penn has tweeted a photo of Teller enjoying a picnic with what appears to be an African Spotted Pygmy Elephant). One thing you learn when you have been in the arts for a long time is that it takes a long time to make anything really good happen.”

Clarity is crucial in the telling of “The Tempest” at Smith Center:

“This is a full-scale magic show, a full-scale concert of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan music, this is most of all a full-scale, genuine clear production of 'The Tempest.'” Teller said. “This is telling the tale of ‘The Tempest’ with a clarity that no one will have trouble following. One of the besetting problems of ‘The Tempest’ is that Shakespeare’s audiences were better at pure listening. They were more experienced at pure listening. They hadn’t been given television and movies. So if you were to tell them the story, they saw it more instantly and visually in their minds. Part of our goal is to back up all of those words with images, so when you hear those words, you literally see the picture onstage, and that, I think, will help the clarity of it.”

The project reminds Teller of the time when he first became interested in magic:

“I was 4 1/2 years old and I got sick, so I was out of kindergarten for a while, recovering, and we’d just gotten a television. The TV show ‘Howdy Doody’ was on, and his clown, Clarabell, did magic,” Teller says. “One of the things they offered on the show was a Howdy Doody Magic Set, which you got for 35 cents and three Mars candy bar wrappers. I sent away for it, and it came. I’m now recovering, and I had nothing to do but play with this magic set.

“This magic set was put in a flat envelope, made of pieces of cardboard that you tabbed together, and I remember staring at this for hours and hours, fascinated by the idea that something could look different from the way it really was. It was so fascinating to me. It just grabbed me with huge, psychological hooks, and I’ve never been able to shake it. … ‘The Tempest’ is a very large Howdy Doody Magic Set.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at Twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow “Kats With the Dish” at Twitter.com/KatsWiththeDish.

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