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Magician Teller will do ‘Chicago Shakesfear,' but even he can’t make live magic reappear

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 10/27/2020 Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune

Teller, the not-so-silent part of Penn & Teller, is collaborating with Chicago Shakespeare Theater for their “Chicago Shakesfear” this Halloween weekend, talking up the relationship between Shakespeare and the supernatural. In a midnight interview with the Tribune, here edited for length and clarity, he talked about magic in the pandemic, his thoughts on the future and, of course, the relationship between horror and the Bard.

Q: Did the pandemic just kill live magic?

A: A lot of people feel like this is the end of something. I’ve been around for a long time and I’ve had more highs and lows than you could imagine. And I feel like we are at an intermission. Now this is the intermission you might want in the Mah 1/4 u0101bh 1/4 u0101rata. This is a long goddamn intermission. More than enough time to go on a short vacation. If you could go anywhere. I used the time to get cataract surgery. But I always feel positive about things. Although I always used to brag that I didn’t need television and that I made my living in live theater. Until now.

Q: You’re an astute student of human perceptions. What do you make of how we are handling this virus?

A: Everyone is tired of this particular piece of news and that is leading people to do foolish things. To a great extent, magic is about the difference between what your gut tells you and what your brain tells you. You respond with your gut and then your brain goes to work on it. Right now, we are seeing a large division between people who are operating with their gut and people who are operating with their brain. We are seeing the result of too many people who are operating with their feelings. Feelings are important but we are forgetting that we do have reason at our disposal.

Q: It’s tough on young people.

A: Very. They haven’t had the experience of not getting what they want for a very long time. I was brought up by Depression-era parents. They knew about hanging on through the tough times. I always tell young magicians to keep in mind that in a lifetime, even three years is a blink of an eye. It takes a long time to get results in life.

Q: You and Penn have been on a pause?

A: We’ve not done any live shows since the end of March. Safety is paramount. We were very worried when we first started to hear about the coronavirus because we’ve always greeted our visitors from around the world, one on one. But so far we and our crew have been lucky.

Q: Entertainment people are hurting.

A: Penn and I have saved our pennies for years. We’ve been able to keep everyone on salary even though we don’t have any live shows. Obviously, we can’t do that forever but we have managed it so far. It’s not just performers and crew who are hurting. We work at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. All of the servers and housekeepers are very much part of the success of our show. They are part of the infrastructure.

Q: And how about your TV show, “Fool Us”?

A: The CW wanted another season so we built a TV studio inside our actual theater at the Rio and then quarantined everyone, NBA-style. We shot 13 or 15 shows in eight days. There was no audience but we used a green screen wall so we can assemble the shows and then people will be able to react later.

What do you think of Zoom magic?

A: We did a performance for Jimmy Fallon over Zoom. Some magicians have really embraced it: they have accepted that they don’t have trapdoors, a backstage or wings, but one camera and one point of view. They’ve explored what they can do in this new vocabulary. There are remarkable things a magician can do on Zoom. You can talk to the audience and then they can fool themselves at home. People forget, for example, that when a magician touches a Zoom frame, that can be an opportunity for chicanery. There is an Argentinian magician called Adrian LaCroix who is doing really amazing things, including an incredible trick with rising cards.

Q: You’re talking spooky Shakespeare for Halloween in programing that the theater hopes will be available for schools to use on Friday. We saw what you did with “Macbeth” and “The Tempest” in Chicago. What else do you want to do with Shakespeare?

A: I’ve always want to do something really good with the ghost of Hamlet’s father. That deserves to be really terrifying. Remember what he says to Hamlet about his situation? “I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood.” He is talking about his skin peeling off. If you were to watch some of that happen to Hamlet’s father, then that would provide what it was supposed to provide. In our rather visual culture, such an illusion would better allow us to carry in our minds the level of horror that drives Hamlet. It deserves to be terrifying, because that’s the trauma that drives melancholy into revenge.

Happy Halloween.

“Chicago Shakesfear” opens for streaming 7 p.m. Oct. 29; more at

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.


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