Illusionist Teller conjures 'MacBeth'

WASHINGTON — Shakespeare wrote “Macbeth” as a supernatural thriller, so according to Teller, the single-monikered silent half of magician duo Penn & Teller, it should be presented as violently as any modern-day horror movie.

A version of the Scottish Play that Teller hopes will “scare the living hell out of the audience” bowed Jan. 18 at Red Bank, N.J.’s Two River Theater Company in a co-production with D.C.’s Folger Theater. Teller is co-directing the play with Two River a.d. Aaron Posner.

Teller has sprinkled the production with diabolical trickery and Grand Guignol touches. In Macbeth’s dagger scene, for example, the famous hallucination becomes eerily real before the eyes of actor Ian Merrill Peakes, in the title role, thanks to a conveniently placed mirror. The three witches, all played by beefy fellows, wear masks inspired by the corpses of the Palermo crypt. Teller describes their act four caldron scene as “a poetic plunge into the blackest maw of hell.” Even as the witches are stabbed, they seem to disappear.

And yes, there’s blood aplenty. The lily white nightgown of guilt-plagued Lady Macbeth gets a sudden makeover when “out, out damned spot” is intoned by Kate Eastwood Norris. The production is also accompanied by a creepy score from composer Kenny Wollesen that helps emulate the suspense of a Hollywood thriller.

Yet the object is not to turn “Macbeth” into a magic show. Rather, it’s to present the play in a fresh way that serves Shakespeare’s tale, Posner says.

Posner, a veteran Shakespearean director, says he is following the passion and vision of Teller, whom he regards as a savvy collaborator and an astute Shakespeare aficionado.

The attention to detail from the entire assemblage of designers and actors far exceeds the average nonprofit theater production, budgeted at $273,000, split between the two theaters, he says. Before selecting percussionist Wollesen, Teller even consulted Stephen Sondheim and singer Tom Waits.

Posner and Teller previously worked together on a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Philadelphia’s Arden Theater, which Posner co-founded. Their idea to collaborate on “Macbeth” was hatched three years ago.

For Teller, the project has been an all-consuming exercise that results from a lifelong fascination with the play. He has even written a blog about the staging experience on the Penn & Teller website and hired a video crew to record the early design meetings and rehearsals. For the past year, he has stolen every available moment from the duo’s Las Vegas act and other engagements to refine his techniques.

P&T fans throughout the country have purchased tickets for the two engagements, helping to generate the largest advance ever for Two River and a two-week extension through Feb. 17. Folger also reports strong sales and a likely extension of the play’s Feb. 28-April 6 D.C. engagement.

As for the potential of their supernatural approach for a commercial or larger regional venture, the co-directors agree the production should speak for itself. But even before opening night, Posner was fielding inquiries from theater colleagues about the wizardry slated for this inventive take on the Bard.

“We’re trying to blow the dust off the more reverential treatments of the story that are typically seen,” Posner says.

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