Teller’s magical ‘Tempest’ marks its world premiere at The Smith Center

Teller says he doesn’t “find dreams very satisfying” — perhaps because, from his perspective as a showbiz veteran, “the process of going from dream to reality is grueling.”

Yet, nonetheless, one of Teller’s dreams is becoming reality this weekend: his reimagined version of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest,” which marks its world premiere Saturday (the last of four previews is Friday) in a 500-seat tent pitched in The Smith Center’s Symphony Park.

The production is scheduled to run through April 27.

Unlike most versions of “The Tempest,” which use magic metaphorically, this one — co-adapted and directed by award-winning playwright and director Aaron Posner — takes its magic seriously, and literally, with about “a dozen scenes based around magic,” from sleight-of-hand to levitation, Teller reports.

But back to the dream.

Teller — the smaller, silent (at least onstage) half of Rio headliners Penn &Teller — once dreamed he was Prospero, the understandably vengeful magician at the heart of “The Tempest,” and was “ ‘fighting mine enemies’ by making shows,” he recalls, quoting the play.

“That was a revelation,” Teller says of the dream, noting how “stage magic is perfectly adapted to the play, because it does to the audience what Prospero does” to the play’s characters: triggers “huge emotions” by “doing nonreal things.”

But wait! There’s even more audaciousness in store!

In place of Shakespearean-era music, this “Tempest” features 10 songs by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, his wife and collaborator. (There’s even a Vegas connection: Waits and Brennan met while working on Francis Ford Coppola’s 1982 musical, the Vegas valentine “One From the Heart,” for which Waits composed the Oscar-nominated score.)

The Waits-Brennan songs featured in “The Tempest” underline the production’s carnivallike setting (Teller likens it to “something on the end of a Coney Island pier in the middle of the night”), which in turn was inspired by a real-life roving 1940s magician who billed himself as “Willard the Wizard” and toured with his daughter and a band of misfits, echoing the otherworldly denizens of Prospero’s island.

When Teller showed Waits photographs of Willard and his entourage, the legendarily grizzled singer-songwriter looked them over and replied, “ ‘Those are my people,’ ” Teller recalls.

As for the play’s movement — including that of a two-headed, two-bodied version of the monster Caliban — that’s the responsibility of the shape-shifting dance troupe Pilobolus.

No wonder choreographer Matt Kent, Pilobolus’ associate artistic director, characterizes this “Tempest” as “a soup,” before mixing another metaphor to describe the production: “It’s less of a charm bracelet and more of a lava flow.”

In short, “it’s ‘The Tempest,’ but it’s also a magic show, it’s also a concert and it’s also a dance concert,” Posner explains. “There are a lot of powerful elements.”

And “the mix of these worlds colliding creates a lot of energy,” Kent says.

Produced in collaboration with Massachusetts’ Tony-winning, Harvard-affiliated American Repertory Theatre (where it’s headed following its premiere), this “Tempest” also signals that Las Vegas is “in the first stages of becoming an artistic city in production,” Teller says. “The Smith Center, so far, has presented stuff that was developed elsewhere. For once, we’re turning that around.”

And although Las Vegas has become the production’s launch pad for the most practical of reasons — after all, Teller still has his regular Rio gig with longtime stage partner Penn Jillette — Smith Center officials “just jumped on it” when the production was in the planning stages, Posner says.

“Teller’s a big thinker and willing to go for it,” Posner says, describing their challenge as “let’s see if we can make something amazing.”

Teller and Posner have been discussing plans for this particular “something amazing” for about five years. (The two previously collaborated on a 2008 production of “Macbeth,” done in the style of a supernatural horror thriller.)

But Teller’s “Tempest” connection goes back much further — to his youth — when his father recommended he read “Macbeth,” because “there are witches in it,” Teller recalls, along with “The Tempest,” because “it’s about a magician.”

Taking “The Tempest’s” magic literally requires some creative problem-solving for such collaborators as costume designer Paloma Young.

A Tony-winner for the “Peter Pan” prequel “Peter and the Starcatcher,” Young initially had no idea how to create some of the required costumes, including “a garment floating in space” that metamorphoses into something wildly different.

“In our work as artists, you’re always trying something new,” Young notes, explaining her focus on a “weary elegance” in the costumes, one that conveys “what you need to know about the characters” without distracting from the show’s “many other textures,” from the magic to the music to “the poetry of Shakespeare.”

Like Teller, Young has long had a fascination with “The Tempest” — it was the first Shakespeare play she ever saw (at the Tony-winning La Jolla Playhouse near San Diego, where she grew up) and she, like Prospero’s daughter Miranda, was “raised by a single father” she describes as “a little bit crazy.”

Then again, no one could blame Prospero (played by Tom Nelis) for going a little bit crazy.

Not after losing his dukedom to conspirators (including his own brother) and being shipped off with his young daughter Miranda (Charlotte Hughes) in “a rotten carcass” of a ship so unseaworthy even “the very rats had instinctively quit it,” as Prospero recalls.

Ah, but when the chance for revenge against those who wronged him presents itself, Prospero whips up “The Tempest’s” title storm — and brings his betrayers to his island, where he can deal with them on his terms — and with his “rough magic.”

Overall, “it’s quite the adventure,” Nelis acknowledges during a rehearsal, expressing the pioneering spirit permeating the production.

“It’s an extremely exciting project,” agrees Nate Dendy, alias the sprightly spirit Ariel, who helps Prospero exercise his magical powers. “Everyone is, creatively, at the top of their game.”

Including the cast (assembled over the course of a year), who are “not only talented,” Posner points out, but “unbelievably game in exploring this world.”

And although this “Tempest’s” world may not be a traditional one (“Elizabethan, with people in pumpkin pants,” as Posner describes it), it still focuses on “pure Shakespeare,” he insists.

After all, “he put music in the play — all we’re doing is expanding that, and using a great composer. He put magic tricks in — we’re putting more tricks in,” Posner says. “I genuinely believe that, if Shakespeare saw this production, he would love it.”

With less than a week to go before “The Tempest’s” first preview, Teller admits that “there are parts of it I’m delirious over — and parts of it need a lot of work.”

Then again, he reasons, “if you’re going to see something that’s perfect — and amazing — you have to spend time going down all the wrong avenues (before) picking the right one.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at or 702-383-0272.

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