By TOM CHESEK
It’s the local, live-theater equivalent of a blockbuster movie opening.
Illuminated by star power, ablaze with spectacular stage effects and drenched with enough hemoglobin to drown the lamps of Transylvania, “Macbeth” is coming to Red Bank. Shakespeare’s 400-year-old tragedy of murderous ambition, maddening guilt and most uncool karma begins a month-plus engagement at the thoroughly modern Two River Theater next week.
The star power, of course, belongs to Teller the “quieter, smaller” half of the iconically subversive Penn & Teller magic act. He co-directs the show with the Two River Theater Company’s boy-wonder artistic director Aaron Posner.
Famously a man of few public words (though he did deliver a brief monologue in the cult flick “Penn & Teller Get Killed“), Teller is passionately eloquent when it comes to the macabre “Macbeth.”
Calling this week from his digs in Las Vegas, where he’s continued his lucrative gig at the Rio in between labor-of-love redeye jaunts to Jersey, Teller tells redbankgreen that “Macbeth” is “Shakespeare’s weirdest-ass creation… a bold choice, but a risk worth taking.”
It turns out that it’s a play he’s long wanted to tackle, and a formidable project to which he gets to bring every weapon in his arsenal: the sardonic sense of humor; the fiendish fascination with the trappings of mankind’s fears; and the scholar’s wonder at the brightest and darkest elements of human aspirations.
In a series of online diaries at the official Penn & Teller website, Teller proclaims “Macbeth” to be “a big, hormone-amped dream” that “should be done as violently and amazingly as a modern supernatural horror movie,” complete with stage effects designed to “scare the living hell out of an audience” while allowing spectators to “share Macbeth’s world.”
That means manifesting every floating dagger; every vanishing ghost; every bloody murder and every gruesome, cauldron-bubbling Weird Sister. For this, Teller has enlisted the aid and expertise of illusionist Matt Holtzclaw, horror makeup specialist Frank Ippolito and set designer Dan Conway, whose tricky environment likened by the magician to “a beautiful abbatoir” is dominated by massive metal gates that Two River’s Jayme Powers describes as “weighing a thousand pounds, because they’re full of magic.”
Are Teller and Posner Afraid they could be setting themselves up for a critical drubbing based on that famous “Macbeth” quote about “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?” Posner, the veteran Shakespearean director, assures audiences that while he’s “got to push the boundaries, the story must make sense.” And, as Teller tells it, the show “won’t be just a collection of gimmicks. It will be great Shakespeare.”
“I have to point out that we are NOT trying to illuminate Shakespeare for a ‘suburban’ audience,” the first-time director emphasizes. “This is a ‘Macbeth’ that we’d be proud to put before the most sophisticated crowd. It has a lot of balls, and not an ounce of condescension.”
The illusionist began regular visits to Two River’s Bridge Avenue facility last spring (he calls the venue “one of the finest I’ve ever seen the most inviting, pleasing, cozy, wonderful place I have ever walked into,” which is saying something, coming from a professional mute). He recalls long, grueling days overseeing myriad details that ranged from the cadence of the iambic pentameter to the inherent coolness of the blood-pack hits. Nights, he crashed at the Molly Pitcher Inn.
In the process, his familiar face was spied at several of the greater Red Bank area’s finest eating establishments, from Osteria Dante and Danny’s Steakhouse to Brothers Pizza, House of Chong and the Bridge Avenue WaWa.
A team of videographers recorded some of the earliest brainstorming sessions, and reporters from the likes of The New Yorker, Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal have caused the normally tight-lipped Teller to explain his creative processes to a degree previously unheard.
But in the end, the production is more about the raw, naked majesty of the text and its players than it is smoke and mirrors. Toward that end, Posner and Teller have assembled a professional cast highlighted by Ian Merrill Peakes as the Scottish soldier who’s been prophesied to have a claim upon the king’s throne and Kate Norris (seen in TRTC’s “The Pavilion” last year) as Lady Macbeth. Cody Nickell plays the
banquet-busting Banquo Macduff and Paul Morella is in the role of banquet-busting Banquo.
“Pos and Teller” worked their magic together once before with an acclaimed production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in Philadelphia, where Posner was based before arriving here in late 2006.
Immediately upon completion of its Red Bank run, the “Macbeth” sets will be struck and the entire production trucked down to Washington, DC’s Folger Theatre (a co-producer, along with Monmouth University, of this big-budget horror show) for another high-profile engagement.
In the meantime, the folks at Two River have provided local audiences with a slew of opportunities to catch “Macbeth,” from four full days of previews (the play opens officially on Saturday, January 19) right on through the final curtain on February 17.
Preview tickets for “Macbeth” are priced at $32 each; regular show seats range from $32 to $56. For reservations, available dates and info on group discounts and specially enhanced performances, visit the theater website.
Although the self-described “cheesy, Vegas half of the team” won’t be present at opening night in Red Bank due to the demands of his ongoing casino stint, we can report, in a redbankgreen exclusive, that Teller plans to attend the final preview performance January 18.
PS: Wondering about the redbankoRBit logo above? That’s just our way of whetting interest in a new companion website to redbankgreen, one focused entirely on entertainment, food and culture in the idyllic little corner of Monmouth County that we call The Green. It’s under construction now, but trust us, we’ll let you know when it’s up and stunning. Stay tuned…