Like all good conjuring stories, this one begins with a dream. “One morning in the 1970s I woke up and I had just had a dream, and the dream was that I was Prospero in The Tempest,” shares Teller, the smaller, quieter half of the Penn & Teller magic duo. “And the phrase that came out of the dream to me was that I was ‘taking revenge on mine enemies.’” But, in true Teller fashion, the revenge didn’t come through a sword, but through “psychological assaults.”
“The idea haunted me that Prospero was getting his way in the world exactly the way a stage magician does,” Teller continues. For years he carefully held this insight into the workings of Shakespeare’s last play—until he read about Willard the Wizard, a traveling magician in the 1930s and ’40s who performed across the vast, spare landscape of Texas during the Dust Bowl years. “He performed in a tent; he had with him a troupe of strange misfits and, incidentally, as part of his show, one very beautiful daughter. And we began to think how much it must be like being on a desert island to tour Texas towns with your magic show in a tent, all your people contained in this one thing, and there’s vast amounts of empty spaces between the places you need to go.” And the contradictory idea of a magician shipwrecked in the desert snapped into place.
Teller’s ghostly, magic tent now sits in Symphony Park, home of the Smith Center, and in one week, performances will start on Teller’s vision of Shakespeare’s last play—because, like Prospero’s spirits, when the magician Teller asks them to do something, artists leap into action.
Aaron Posner, with whom Teller collaborated on a magic Macbeth some years ago and who is “an absolute genius with shaping Shakespearean scenes,” is directing; American Repertory Theater, on an incredible hot streak (they’ve produced the last two Tony Award-winning musical revivals) is co-producing; Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan (“their songs are some of the best poetry that really matters nowadays”) let Teller use their catalog of music for the show; and the Smith Center started it all two years ago when it enthusiastically bought in to Teller’s pitch.
“We said this is absolutely amazing,” says Paul Beard, COO at the Smith Center, and everyone there jumped on board as soon as Teller approached them. “We try to be a great platform, an environment for the highest caliber of artistic expression,” Beard continues. It’s rare anywhere for as much talent as this show packs to come together for a project.
“The Smith Center has been such a revolution for Las Vegas,” Teller says. “It’s the first thing that put Vegas on the map as a serious performing arts place.”
This show also has one final magic trick: In three weeks, it disappears. “This is a unique, one-off opportunity,” Beard says. “I encourage everybody not to miss this opportunity while it’s here. It will come and go in the blink of an eye.”
The Tempest April 1-27, times vary, $25-$75. Smith Center, 749-2000.