#528: The Quaint Device of Tom and Teller

September 11th, 2015

She asked if I wanted to see a production of my favorite Shakespeare play staged by my favorite magician with a score by my third-favorite 20th-century songwriter.

Of course I said yes.

So on Thursday, she of the dessert-first meals and I went to the Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of “The Tempest” co-directed by Teller of Penn & Teller with a score by Tom Waits. (Sorry, Tom. Elvis Costello and David Bowie come first. If it helps, you beat Lou Reed.)

One of Navy Pier’s graces that still fails to save the place is a magnificent Shakespeare theater company. It’s a fully in-the-round performance space with exactly the same number of bad seats as there are cogent arguments that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays: zero.

I’m not a theater critic, just a Shakespeare buff who happens to blog and to admire circus aesthetic.

So of course I raved.

It was a breathtaking, brilliant production with a Prospero inspired by Dust Bowl sideshow magician “Willard the Wizard.” The acting and magical effects (Why has NO ONE ever interpreted Prospero’s magic as stage magic?) blended seamlessly with the carnie-punk tunes of Tom Waits, whom I’ve loved since my cousin Kate first told me in high school that “The Black Rider” was a thing.

There was magic, with all that connotes. Vague notions that the coin was in the other hand, that mirrors can explain all things and that the most important question you could be asked would be if this was your card.

Interspersed with Shakespeare, the result was, I groan to say it, but magic.

There was a moment — I won’t give it away because I want any reader of this to be as surprised, awed and humbled as I was — but the wizard Prospero’s daughter Miranda was levitating. It was the old trick, complete with air-sprite Ariel waving a hula hoop around the floater. I wondered absently how they did it.

Then I realized the trick.

She was floating because she was Miranda. And they were Ariel and Prospero.

And in this backroom off a pier I mock as a place tourists buy deep-dish that had somehow become a remote, spirit-laden island entrapping the dukes of Milan and Naples, there was nothing other that they could do than levitate beatifically while two goddesses sang gender-swapped versions of Tom Waits classics.

I know the actors were repeating a dead limey’s words with emphasis. I know the singers were vibrating their larynxes in alternating tonality and rhythm to hit that “Bone Machine” cadence.

Nothing would have changed about that moment had I known where every wire, rod and hook was located.

It was nothing so simple as “theater is magic.” Magic is magic. Theater is a bunch of people who would be atrocious buttonholers at parties mincing about (skillfully) to words someone else wrote.

But there is a magic in that even now, hours later, I can’t think of the man my playbill tells me is Larry Yando, three-year Scar of the “Lion King” touring company, as anyone other than Prospero, rightful Duke of Milan.

Nate Dendy’s not an actor and magician. He’s Ariel. I laughed when he silently, Teller-like, pre-show managed the audience with a deck of cards, a facial gesture and a bit of light pickpocketry. I winced at his pain encased in the old-timey magic stage prop replicating Sycorax’s cloven pine.

I broke a little when he asked his master if he was loved.

Although I’ve pledged not to spoil any of the surprises of the night, I’ll say this much: The theater was scattered with loose playing cards after the performance. I went back as blazer-clad ushers looked for stray playbills and sunglasses to see if I could claim one as a souvenir.

Amid collecting a flutter of ripped-up kings by a set of stairs leading up to the main stage, I saw it. One card lying face down on the thrust stage, the section of the performance that jutted into the audience to symbolize the island.

I asked a black-clad stagehand with an earpiece if I could have it.

“Knock yourself out,” he said, shrugging and walking away.

I leaned over into the stage and picked it up.

It was the ace of spades, meaning either that I had won a 1 in 52, that they only used the glamour cards or that one of the stars of “Bullshit!” and the crazy chicken inventor from “Mystery Men” had fated me for death.

The crew pulled back the proscenium, tearing away Prospero’s cave to reveal ladders, fly ropes, costumes hanging on hooks and other backstage paraphernalia. I turned the ace around in my fingers.

It was my card.

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