ARCHIVE: Teller, TRTC Have Blood on Their Hands with ‘Macbeth’

Teller and Posner.157Originally published in the Asbury Park Press on January 18, 2008

A phone call from someone purporting to be the notoriously non-verbal TELLER might  normally prompt a reaction that name-checks the title of Penn & Teller’s popular Showtime series. Even so, a few seconds with this erudite, engaging  and eloquent master of mischief and magic is enough to convince you that the “smaller, quieter half” of the superstar duo is every bit the trove of fiendishly fascinating information you always took him to be — simultaneously an artisan of illusion and a debunker of myth and pretense; a gentleman and a scholar and, you’d best believe, a passionate authority on Shakespeare.

Teller (no first name, legally and professionally) has been uncharacteristically chatty in public these days, speaking to media outlets like NPR and The New Yorker about his newest milestone in an ever-unpredictable career: an all-new production of William Shakespeare’s MACBETH, incorporating some of the most electrifying stage effects ever created, and going up this weekend at Red Bank’s Two River Theater.

Devised and directed by Teller in collaboration with the Two River company’s artistic director Aaron Posner (and produced in conjunction with Monmouth University and the Folger Theatre in Washington, DC), this realization of the Bard’s tragedy of bloody ambition, telltale conscience and grim prophecy is being frankly marketed as “a horror show;” a manifestation of the master’s darkest visions that materializes every bloody floating knife, every party-crashing corpse, and every “Weird Sister” convened around the cauldron.

In a very illuminating production diary found online at the official Penn & Teller site, Teller (who previously worked with Posner and Shakespeare on a magical “Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Philadelphia) calls the project “a big, hormone-amped dream” that has been approached as a “modern supernatural horror movie,” with the aim to “scare the pee out of audiences.” To that end, the directing partners enlisted the services of such Grand Guignol-inspired technical artists as the illusion specialist Matthew Holtzclaw, the monster makeup man Frank Ippolito, the experimental composer Kenny Wollesen, and the set designer Dan Conway, whose formidably foreboding scenery is dominated by massive, twisted metal “Gates of Hell.”

Speaking from Las Vegas (where, unfortunately, the demands of his lucrative casino-show schedule prohibit his being present for the opening night in Red Bank), Teller discusses the concepts and the philosophy that brought this nightmarish dream project to bloody fruition in Monmouth County; a run that’s been twice extended beyond its original closing date to continue through February 17.

JERSEY ALIVE: You’ve been making trips to Red Bank for much of the past few months, working very closely on this production, but have you really caught a sense of the sort of blockbuster-sized buzz that the show’s been generating here on the Shore? You’re competing not with the local playhouses, but with the giant monsters at the multiplex… 

TELLER: It’s a big show; the set is much more grand than I ever dreamed it would be, and it’s a big risk. “Macbeth” is a bold choice, and, although some purists may take offense, it’s a risk worth taking.

I think the biggest risk here has to do with our choices, in that we want people to notice the effects, but not enough to pull them away from the story. Magic on a stage is different from straight special effects in the movies. In live theatre, the audience knows the rules of nature. So to get people to say “look at that, holy cow, it can’t be”…it’s more of a visceral thing; a collision. Experience colliding with what the eye is seeing.

It’s been a long-time goal for (Two River Theater founder) Bob Rechnitz  to bring professional Shakespeare productions to the stage in Monmouth County, and when he came on board Aaron Posner worked hard to make that a reality. Do you think that a certain amount of showmanship is helpful in selling Shakespeare to suburban audiences…and is there a danger that you’d leave your show open to being described as “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?”

I do need to make the point that we are NOT illuminating Shakespeare for suburban audiences. This is a “Macbeth” that we’d be proud to put before the most sophisticated crowd. It has a lot of balls…there’s not an ounce of condescension. And I have never based my career on what people want…I think that if you sincerely have an idea you’re in love with, you can pull people right into it.

The themes of “Macbeth” are also perfectly congruent with magic. Mr. Macbeth has a lot of trouble telling what’s in his head, and where the world leaves off…the world is putting on a sick magic show for Macbeth, and he falls for it.

Aaron has said that there’s even a certain tongue-in-cheek quality to this dark tale; that no playwright as good as Shakespeare puts ghosts, witches and floating daggers in a play that wants to be taken 100 percent  seriously. 

I completely agree! For too many years, “Macbeth” has been all about the gloom of sad adults…but there are actual wry jokes in it. We deliberately chose people with a comedic nuance. This couple (lead actors Ian Merrill Peakes and Kate Norris) has played Shakespearean comedy; they were in “The Taming of the Shrew,” and now they’re together as Mr. And Mrs. Macbeth.

There’s that one point in the play where Shakespeare has built the most suspenseful, bone-crackingly tense scene ever put on stage…Macbeth has had these hallucinations and is covered in blood from having committed murder; his wife finds the murder weapons, and then there’s a knock at the door. They send a drunken porter to answer the door, while Macbeth washes up and then has to essentially chat about the weather with a couple of visitors. In Shakespeare, topical jokes don’t age very well, but in our show the porter plays it loosely enough to actually get some real laughs.

At the end of your run in Red Bank comes the biggest magic trick of all, when the entire production is packed up and trucked down to DC for your opening at the Folger. 

Dan Conway has made a set that works for both places. We gave him the hardest possible chore, and he went through three entire conceptions, building a set that worked and enabled magic tricks…it’s like a beautiful abattoir. There are two massive columns, which actually reflect architectural features of the Folger.

The Folger Theatre is very small…it’s modeled on what they think the Globe Theatre was like in Shakespeare’s day. It’s intimate, cozy, warm, but it’s really more like a lecture hall. Now, the Two River is the most inviting, pleasing, wonderful place I ever walked into…I wish I could fold it up and take it with me wherever we play.

According to your diaries, you were too busy to take in a whole lot of Jersey Shore scenery other than the Molly Pitcher Inn and the occasional trip over to the local Wawa. Plus your visits coincided with the grimmest, coldest, dreariest days in recent months, so the whole stretch must have been reminiscent of the ruddy moors of Macbeth’s Scotland. 

That thought had occurred to me. In the play, every day is overcast…we were seeing the day as Macbeth sees it.

Your online postings go into great detail about your brainstorming sessions with the creative crew. It seems like you and Aaron have assembled a real dream team for this show. 

I love the cast, and all the tech people. Dan is now officially my favorite set designer, and Frank’s our one-man special effects and makeup crew. Devon Painter, our costume designer, is a wild redhead…nothing bothers her. There’s a level of positive creative contribution here that one doesn’t often see…it’s something that’s powerfully heartfelt by all involved.

Having had such a tremendous experience working on this production, as well as opening up a whole new area of endeavor in your career, what other stage properties would you like to sink your teeth into?

I’d like to do “The Tempest” with Aaron. But if I had a blank check right now I’d use it to videotape “Macbeth” for broadcast. I work on an obsession-by-obsession basis!