Los Angeles Teller, the silent half of Penn & Teller, has a habit of introducing magic and drama into unexpected places.
As a youngster he dared to stage his nascent act at a party for rowdy Cub Scouts. (He was pelted with candy). As a young man he appeared at a Princeton University pub in front of rowdier students. (He was pelted with beer.)
He and Penn Jillette took their ironic form of magic, replete with the threat of danger as well as comedy, to generally irony-free Las Vegas, where they've been rewarded with a long-running show at the Rio hotel and casino.
Their Showtime series with the rebellious name - edited, it's "Penn & Teller: (Naughty Word Meaning Baloney)!" - is in its fifth season of debunking any topic ripe for attack. Thursday's episode on immigration includes illegal workers building a replica border fence and showing how to get past it.
And how about this: Teller is fulfulling a long-held dream of staging Shakespeare's "Macbeth" the way he believes it should be: as a "supernatural horror thriller." He's working with the Two River Theater Company in Red Bank, N.J., for an early 2008 debut.
The play is "dark and creepy and full of murders and supernatural events. It's just great. The suspense just makes your hair rise when they're murdering the king," Teller said with infectious delight.
He vows tricks "that would do fine credit to any professional magic show, but they're in the context of this terrifying play, so I think they should blow people's heads off." Examples include vanishing daggers and hands that are blood-soaked one moment, clean the next.
"Pretty creepy," he says, wearing a satisfied smile. His voice, the one audiences never hear, is pleasantly mild and reassuring.
Teller is reveling in these graphic descriptions in the airy and chic hotel suite in which he's staying on a business trip from Las Vegas. A boyish-looking 59, he's dressed meticulously in a crisp white shirt, black pants and elegant shoes.
A life of magic
His speech is precise as well, whether he's recalling personal anecdotes (for the record, his parents were more heartbroken than he was about the Scout fiasco) or describing the first magic prop he owned, at age 5, purchased off the "Howdy Doody" TV show.
It consisted of a small cardboard tray that could hide a few pennies and hold a few more on top. When the tray was tipped, the coins would have appeared to magically multiply as the hidden ones slipped out.
"That's my earliest memory of a magic trick. And I don't remember any period of my life thereafter in which magic was not a part of my life," said the Philadelphia-born Raymond Teller.
His passion was fanned in high school by fate's sleight of hand. Turned out Teller's drama teacher, David Rosenbaum, also worked as a magician and wrote about the craft.
"He and I got deeply into the idea that magic was a neglected form of theater in which irony was built in; you have multiple perspectives on it," Teller said. What Shakespeare weaves so elaborately into his works is "there in the dumbest dove act."
(Back to literature again; not surprising for a man who studied the classics at Amherst College and once taught Latin.)
In "Hamlet," Teller said, Shakespeare puts a play within a play to make the audience aware that the work they're seeing may have the same implications for their lives as the play within "Hamlet" has for its protagonist.
"With magic, you look at something and because it looks impossible you're forced into seeing two perspectives at once," he said. "It's a wonderful collision between what you see and what you know."
That intellectual exploration prompted him to want to do more with magic, to create works that would be dramatically composed and not just a "how did they do that trick?," as he put it.
His own style
It also encouraged him to try to do less on stage. The idea of abandoning all conversation during his act came to him in college.
"I was maybe 18 or 19 and trying desperately to find what you could do to take magic out of the dog-and-pony realm. I realized one of the things that seemed cheesiest about magic was magic patter. Magicians tended to say, 'Here I am holding up a red ball,' which insulted the intelligence of the audience."
So he devised an approach that would lay out a "series of events in a very raw way and let audiences put those events together. That is, not tell them what to think. I don't like to be told what to think," Teller said.
Turns out, neither does the audience. He braved the college crowd, booking himself into frat parties to prove his theory.
"I turned out the lights, put my spots (spotlights) on the floor, quietly showed how sharp razor blades could slice paper and then ate them. The college boys would pay attention momentarily, sip their beers a little less frequently," he said.
"Strangely, the combination of violent images and not talking seemed like a right piece of chemistry for me."