Teller, the mononymous magician, says that his upcoming production of “The Tempest” began as the stuff of dreams — his, to be precise. In 1978, he was studying the process of recording dreams, and one night he dreamt that he was Prospero, the sorcerer at the center of Shakespeare’s last play. “I was fighting my enemies by means of magic tricks,” Teller says. “I realized that Prospero is unlike other Shakespearean vengeance takers, who stab their enemies or poison them or gouge their eyes out. Prospero puts on shows to get his vengeance. It’s a strange tale that haunted me for a long time.”
He’s come back to that delicious reverie over the years, and now, decades later, his version of “The Tempest” begins performances at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge Sunday and runs through June 15. The play, which is co-produced by the American Repertory Theater and the Las Vegas-based Smith Center for the Performing Arts, brings together an esoteric group of creative types, with movement by the body-bending dance troupe Pilobolus, magic design by the legendary illusionist Johnny Thompson, and music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan.
Teller describes the production, which he conceived and directs with Aaron Posner, as a sort of “shipwrecked magic show” performed on a set that resembles “the end of a Coney Island pier at night.”
Teller, the diminutive, poker-faced half of Penn and Teller, is anything but silent offstage. A voracious reader with a mind like a sponge, he can segue from a scholarly discussion of compositional theory into a pitch-perfect Shakespearean monologue. He was drawn to “The Tempest” when his grandfather, a Russian immigrant who taught himself English, inspired him to read the play. His high school mentor, an English teacher named David Rosenbaum (Teller calls him Rosey), always wanted to direct “The Tempest,” but died before he got the chance. “I never lost Rosey’s longing to do the play,” Teller says.
In “The Tempest,” Prospero is betrayed by his brother and sent to die at sea with his 3-year-old daughter, Miranda. He lands on a magical island, where he becomes a sorcerer and rules over the few denizens. Twelve years later, he conjures up a storm to bring his enemies to the island and ultimately create a brave new world for his daughter. He has to give up his magic — in his words, “break my staff” and “drown my book” — in order to return to civilization. “I’m 66, and I am aware of my mortality,’’ Teller says. “What would it take for me to give up my magic? That is the core of the play for me.” He doesn’t answer the question immediately, but ponders it.
He and Posner have been talking about their production since 2008, when they collaborated on a “Macbeth” that used magic tricks to illuminate that bloody story. Teller happened to read a biography of Willard the Wizard, an itinerant magician who toured the Dust Bowl during the Depression, performing in a tent with his daughter and a ragtag band of musicians. The notion of a traveling carnival reminded him of Prospero’s island, and the production is built around that image.
The show was performed in a real tent in Las Vegas, a city known more for prizefights and circus performances than legitimate theater. Teller and Posner cut repetitive dialogue from the script to make it smoother and more efficient. They introduce the shipwrecked characters with a dumb show in the second scene to make it clear who is who. “It’s the theatrical equivalent of a PowerPoint,” Teller says.
‘The music and the movement and the magic make it easier to get into the art.’
The point, they say, is to engage the audience. “We want to be sure that it’s not rarefied and that it is as accessible to as wide an audience as possible,” Posner says. “The music and the movement and the magic make it easier to get into the art, whether you are a Shakespeare scholar or a relatively aware and engaged 8-year-old child.”
But the magic, Posner and Teller say, is not gratuitous. It’s all in the text. When Shakespeare describes a character as “charmed from moving,” you can expect some prestidigitation. When a banquet disappears with what Shakespeare called a “quaint device,” you can expect a sophisticated magic trick. Fresh garments appear out of nowhere. Spirits descend. And Prospero levitates his daughter at a key moment, while a live band called Rough Magic sings the Tom Waits tune “Shiny Things.”
Teller met the gravel-voiced Waits in 1986 when he created magic for a production of the musician’s play, “Frank’s Wild Years.” They’ve been friends ever since. “Teaching sleight of hand to Tom Waits transcended anything I’ve ever done as a magician,’’ Teller says. He sent Waits a copy of the Willard biography, along with his ideas for the production. The musician, Teller says, is not a fan of Shakespeare, but he was enamored of the photos of Willard’s band. “They are rail thin, playing their instruments in baggy dusty clothes. He took one look and said, ‘These are my people.’ ’’ Waits granted permission to use anything from his music catalog, which Teller claims is “about as broad and spectacular as, well, let’s say the Bach Cantatas.”
The magician has friends in lots of convenient places. Last year, he collaborated with the dance troupe Pilobolus on its piece “[esc],” in which the agile dancers freed themselves from handcuffs and chains. When he and Posner were thinking about how to depict the character of Caliban, a half-human monster who is enslaved by Prospero, they turned to Matt Kent, associate artistic director of Pilobolus. Together, they came up with the concept of having two actors move together like conjoined twins, twisting around each other in seemingly impossible contortions. “Caliban has this natural way of interacting with the world that we relate to in Pilobolus,” Kent says. “We run around naked on each other all of the time.”
One of the performers playing Caliban is a trained dancer who has never acted before, and the other is an actor who has little dance experience. At first, the physical demands were grueling for the actor. “I put him through the ringer, but he is made of asbestos and steel now,’’ Kent says. “His first audition was a Skype audition, and we asked him to do a monologue standing on his head, and he did it.”
Kent and the two co-directors say that their work is a true collaboration, and that their roles are intertwined. Posner suggested a dance move that is now known simply as “The Posner.” Teller vets the magic, but he also interprets the text. “Teller has a very creative and meticulous mind. That is part of his genius,” Posner says. “I am a more random and creative thinker. I jump around from thing to thing. We frustrate each other, but we satisfy each other much more often.”
The two directors come from different ends of the entertainment industry as well. The magician performs the Penn and Teller show nightly in Las Vegas at the Rio, a decidedly for-profit operation. Posner, who is also a playwright, is the founder and former artistic director of Philadelphia’s nonprofit Arden Theatre Company and works frequently in the nonprofit regional theater. “Teller is a practical artist,’’ says Posner. “He wants to be entertaining and engage people, and he likes to make money doing it.”
In the past few years, the ART has had a track record of moving shows that debut in Cambridge to the for-profit world of Broadway, including “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,” “Pippin,’’ and “The Glass Menagerie.” Professionals in the nonprofit theater often skirt questions about whether they would like a particular production to move to New York, but the folks involved in “The Tempest” aren’t shy about the subject. “There is talk, and I’ll take it,’’ Posner says. Teller echoes the thought. “I cherish that hope,’’ he says. “Certainly, the ART has a history of being one conduit for that.”
At the same time, the for-profit Teller is also deeply philosophical about his work. “I like art to take me by the scruff of my neck and drag me in,’’ he says. Magic, he adds, is a collision of two competing realities. “Magic is not good if you believe it is for real,’’ he says. “You see something that seems to be happening, but you know it can’t be happening. You leap between those two things. You laugh or get a chill or jump in your seat. That is the essence of what magic is.’’
“The Tempest” certainly has its share of magic. So what would it take for someone to give up his art? For Posner, the answer is simple. He has a 2-year-old daughter, and has arranged his upcoming schedule so that he is home in Washington, D.C., most of the time. “I have a hard time conceiving of what I wouldn’t do for my daughter,’’ he says. “You make choices based on the things you most desire.”
It’s not as easy for Teller. “I watched Aaron with his daughter outside the tent in Las Vegas, and I could see what would make someone give up magic,’’ he says. “I don’t have children.’’ A pause. “As Penn says, we intend to die in office.”