The Smith Center for the Performing Arts
Tuesday, April 8, 2014 | 2 a.m.
If The Bard of Stratford-on-Avon was alive today, he would be making big bucks writing episodes of Kevin Spacey’s “House of Cards” or Las Vegas writer Anthony Zuiker’s various “CSI” series with Laurence Fishburne and Ted Danson.
Shakespeare’s last play, “The Tempest,” was filled with mystery, crime and intrigue, but he also added wizardry and wonder. So when our silent Rio headliner magician Teller decided to produce his vision, you knew that there’d be magic — and what incredible illusions he has created to weave naturally into the story that England’s preeminent dramatist envisioned in the 1600s.
Shakespeare’s works — among them “Macbeth,” “Hamlet,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Taming of the Shrew,” “Othello,” “Much Ado About Nothing” and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” — are known throughout the world. The greatest writer in the English language — yes, every one of us had to study him in school — created comedy, history, tragedy and poetry in his works.
Teller read him while at school. Then for 30 years, he literally dreamed of telling the tale of “The Tempest.” Five years ago, the dream started taking shape, and two years ago our Smith Center for the Performing Arts agreed to partner with Harvard’s American Repertory Theater to present Teller’s vision.
“Pure brilliance,” “genius” and “fantastic” were just a few of the words of praise at its world premiere Saturday night in a 500-seat touring tent in Symphony Park downtown. I completely agree. I loved it, even though I loathed Shakespeare when I was chained to a desk to study him as a teenager in grammar school.
Shakespeare was more about ensembles rather than individual stars, which explains why the entire cast took their applause and standing ovations together rather than in groups or one at a time. However, there were highlights that must be pointed out:
* The magic designed by veteran Las Vegas illusionist and show consultant Johnny Thompson is perfection personified.
* The music and songs of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan performed by the Rough Magic troupe are the perfect backdrop and accompaniment for this extraordinary production.
* The choreography by Matt Kent from the Pilobolus dance company is a masterful moving piece of body art.
* The adaption by Teller and his creative ART partner Aaron Posner is fantastic and fabulous.
Watch for the dining table that appears from nowhere laden with food, wine, tableware and a large duck that in a flash becomes the skull of a victim. Watch for the bride’s levitation. Stay out of the way of the flying cards. I dare you to figure out how Ariel vanishes into Prospero. You’ll scratch your head a number of times saying, “How on earth did they pull that off?”
I must shine the spotlight on the mind-blowing acting and dance moves of the “monster” Caliban played by Zachary Eisenstat and Manelich Minniefee. Incredibly, one had never acted before this production, and the other had never danced before. Yet, as contortionists, they speak in perfect unison, and their movements defy logic as they twist, turn and tumble over each other.
They told me that they’d never met before casting and rehearsals, yet they perform as if they are Siamese twins. Now living and working out together here in Las Vegas for the month’s run, they almost look alike and admit that they are already talking like twins.
“We both forgot the same line at one of the preview shows, and both of us changed it to the correct dialogue without missing a beat. It’s uncanny to us, so we know how it must be to the audience.”
Nate Dendy, who plays the spirit Ariel, is the perfect partner to the title character of Prospero played by Tom Nelis. Both have learned the skills of magic and manipulation so well that they could guest star any time with Penn & Teller at the Rio. Bravo also to the “drunken fools” Stephano played by Eric Hissom and Trinculo played by Jonathan M. Kim.
Charlotte Graham plays Prospero’s daughter Miranda who is levitated fully just a few feet from the audience. She finds true love and a marriage proposal from Ferdinand played by Joby Earle, who leans precariously tilted face down to the stage in another illusion. Louis Butelli, Dawn Didawick, Christopher Donahue and Edmund Lewis round out the superb cast.
Shakespeare’s creation explores the magical story of shipwrecked aristocrats who wash up on the shores of Prospero’s strange island and find themselves immersed in a world of trickery, intrigue, nightmares and amazement. Before the curtain went up on the premiere, Teller told the audience of his inspiration for the production, the importance of bringing Shakespeare to Las Vegas and the special significance of the premiere at the Smith Center.
The production runs until April 27 before moving to Harvard and then a possible California run before the probable Broadway engagement. Run — don’t walk — to grab the last remaining tickets. You will not want to miss this piece of history past and present.
Among the first-nighters enjoying the journey of the ship that crashes onto the mystery island were many Las Vegas VIPs, including Elaine Wynn and magicians Siegfried Fischbacher and Johnny Thompson with Hollywood’s Magic Castle founder Irene Larsen. They all told me they were bowled over by the spectacular production.
Teller had to race between the Smith Center and the Rio for his regular show with partner Penn. “I think of that as my real job and Shakespeare is my avocation,” he told me when he returned to host the premiere party.
I told him when he asked that I had real fun with his show. “I am so glad everybody enjoyed it,” he said. “I fell in love with ‘The Tempest’ because of the magic that Shakespeare described. It’s not a coincidence that I’d adapt a play about a magician.
“As a kid, there were two of his plays that interested me. First ‘Macbeth’ because of the supernatural, but ‘The Tempest’ because a magician has to make the hardest choices he could possibly make — to take care of his family, he has to give up magic. That’s a horrible idea!
“But he learned that the dangers of being all powerful get him into big trouble with his own conscience. There were no guns on his island, so Prospero never did the bullet trick we do. But he might well have done it; his flavor is that of a performing magician.”
I asked Teller about Shakespeare’s real-life knowledge of the evil and scheming that went on with the heads of government and European royalty centuries ago.
“He read a lot,” laughed Teller. “It’s government just like today — some things never change. Shakespeare knew how to write just like ‘House of Cards’ — political intrigue, death, murder.
“Is Shakespeare still alive and relevant today? Hell yes! ‘The Tempest’ has the economy of everything in it: The best love story ever — better than ‘Romeo & Juliet.’ It’s an absolutely perfect story of political intrigue and attempted murder. It’s even got a best buddy story with Prospero and Ariel, and it’s a great magic show. Shakespeare had the lot!”
Teller asked me to credit Las Vegas magic builders Thom Rubino and Christopher Rose, who is now in charge of the magic backstage and who continues working on the sleight-of-hand card manipulations with the actors.
“All of our actors are quite a find,” Teller continued. “Nate — our Ariel — has turned out to be a great magician. He’s tireless perfecting the art. He doesn’t even take a break for tea because he’ll use it to practice his magic. I’m thrilled with the magic. Not all of it was what we started out with; some things had to change, but I’m thrilled with what came out.
“I am so grateful we had Aaron here to look at the magic and always ask if it hit the Shakespeare beat right. After 65 years of being in magic, Johnny still has the passion. He was here this morning early to restage the way Ariel first appears. He knew it and got it better than it even was already!
“So we have a magic show. We have a funny show, especially with the retribution and the bunch of drunks in it. The ‘dark’ of Shakespeare was there. What Prospero does to the people who did him wrong brings up their worst nightmares and freaks them out completely.
“Think of what you would do to turn the people who did you wrong into blithering heaps of moss. That’s a delicious gift, but one that’s very dark. Shakespeare had the whole thing right there in his writing, and I’m very happy everybody enjoyed our version of what he set out for us.”
And that included Smith Center President and CEO Myron Martin, who told me how happy he was not just with the production itself but also the level of interest and ticket sales of residents for a Shakespeare production.
“Teller has proved that we’re capable of creating shows in Las Vegas and sending them to Broadway instead of just the other way around,” he said. “And who knows? Maybe there will even be more Shakespeare here in the park now.”
You have until April 27 to see Teller’s “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare. Do not miss this opportunity; otherwise, you might just vanish into thin air.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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