Teller’s Macbeth. There are few opportunities to work a Las Vegas magician and Shakespeare into the same sentence—most probably involve trickery, irony or metaphor. This one doesn’t involve trickery, though there is a magician. Last year, Teller of Penn & Teller co-directed a production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth to such acclaim that it wound up getting a run at the center of Shakespeare studies in the United States: the Folger Theater in Washington, D.C. The Folger is part of a private research library dedicated to the Bard and has a pedigree for quality and eminence among patrons of power in our nation’s capital, dating back to Henry Clay as a co-founder. Also, on a practical level, the Folger publishes the editions of Shakespeare’s plays (through Simon & Schuster) that will be used by students in hundreds of high school and college classes.
For Teller, the achievement is considerable, because it is hard to enter the insular worlds of both Shakespeare studies and theater as an outsider. To understand why, I recommend Ron Rosenbaum’s 2006 book The Shakespeare Wars. The martial title is not out of order. Suffice to say that many specialist sandboxes must have been played in when the Folger decided to publish a newly edited edition of Macbeth that included a DVD of the performance co-directed by Teller (a man not in need of tenure), along with Aaron Posner. I think that decision was made because the DVD is something truly special, despite the directors’ insistence that this is meant as a theater piece that cannot be fully conveyed by a recorded performance. What makes this performance so special is that while Teller and his colleagues do not treat the play with the reverence scholars would, or as a period piece for the stage—they freely edit scenes out, offer juxtapositions and update the so-dated-it-usually-gets-cut Porter scene—their overall aesthetic is very much true to Shakespeare. The directors write in an introduction:
“A supernatural horror thriller. That was the concept. ... Everybody knows that the words of Macbeth are great. We decided to give the play’s shock, humor and amazement their due as well.”
The humor in particular is welcome and often lost in attempts to bring this tragedy to the stage. The approach here was to take much of the supernatural material, from blood to floating daggers, and give it a literal presentation to the audience. The blood and dagger are traditionally offered as Macbeth’s mental projections, derived from the language and given to viewers only by the actors’ words, as few directors of Macbeth have the skills to use stage magic the way Teller can. Shakespeare wrote a play that demands jarring juxtapositions of humor that are too often missing when the play is done as Freudian drama, an almost inevitable curse in a play written when there were no books of theories that explained how a nagging wife (who demands to be “unsexed”) and ambition can spur a previously good man to transform, as if by magic, into someone monstrous. That is what magic onstage brings back to Macbeth: the mystery of transformation, the gap between perception and reality, or even the question of whether there is a gap at all. These at once become modern questions instead of the Freudian story of one man’s breakdown. Can stage tricks do all that? No, of course not; the actors, set design and much else have to go right, and they do.
The true magic is that, without changing the setting or much altering Shakespeare’s language, this performance modernizes the play to an extent that actually sends you back to the writing, wondering if Teller didn’t just add that so-contemporary-seeming line. Of course, this was done in Washington, D.C., during the Iraq war. While credit for the words always goes to Shakespeare, making them feel like they are part of the moment is the credit of this production.
This too was part of the design. “Our first goal was to make sure audiences understood every moment,” the directors write. That is usually code for dumbing down Shakespeare. But that is not at all the case here. Teller and company offer a Macbeth who is not an enigma of deformed psychology but remains in many ways a mystery of character still worth pondering today. Check it out. Vegas does Shakespeare, and the result is not a punchline but a magnificent tragedy.