Magic as a performing art has its roots in religion just as the lotus blossom’s roots (pace Prince Siddhartha) lie in the muck of the swamp. Where priests and prophets perform “miracles” to add to the authority of their “revelations,” the modern magician performs his illusions in order to elicit wonder. Our wide-eyed glee at the illustionist’s virtuosity perhaps later provokes us to question: if we can’t believe our eyes, then what can we believe? As magician Jared Kopf remarks, a well-selected and -presented trick “has the potential to start a religion (or, better yet, make his audience question their own).” This view of the emancipatory power of magic can take on a hard new-atheist edge, for example, as pronounced by the Amazing Randi or by Penn of the perennially astounding Penn&Teller. But rather then the cold-eyed skeptic’s scold or the carnival barker’s hard sale, a more subtle, less combative, more beautiful sort of pitch can perhaps be more persuasive. See Penn’s silent partner Teller’s production of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” now at Chicago Shakespeare Theater (https://www.chicagoshakes.com/plays_and_events/tempest).

Teller’s “Tempest,” co-directed with Aaron Posner and developed at a circus-style tent outside the Smith Center in Las Vegas (where I first witnessed it last year) and at the innovative American Repertoire Theater at Harvard, realizes the subversive and sublime potential of Shakespeare’s last masterpiece. As one would avidly anticipate from magical maestro Teller, this production employs lots of tricks. Before the show begins, the spirit Ariel circulates among the audience performing close-up card-magic. In the opening scene, we see Ferdinand drowned in a glass bowl of water — a la Houdini’s water-torture– a gasp-inducing spectacle, both gorgeous and terrifying, that makes us share Miranda’s outrage as she rushes on stage to confront the source of this storm, her father Prospero. Indeed this show uses magic to involve us in the drama. It is a platitude in magic that the art is in the delivery, everything else is just a trick. Was there ever better prestidigitator’s patter than that composed by William Shakespeare! I don’t want to give too much more away (when is the last time a reviewer of the Bard’s work had to offer a spoiler-alert?!), let’s just say that many things are made to appear and disappear; there are many surprises, gasps, and laughs.

Scholars believe that “The Tempest” was originally performed for a royal wedding (of Princess Elizabeth Stuart and Count Palatine Frederick V on Valentine’s Day 1613). This explains why it is so filled with ceremony, song, spectacle, and pageantry. (To see such pageantry gorgeously presented, check out Peter Greenaway’s film “Prospero’s Books” or Thomas Ades’s opera.) For such ceremonious spectacle, Teller simply, sublimely, substitutes a single illusion, the classic levitating girl. It is perhaps the most beautiful use of magic in the show (or in any show!) When the large ring is passed over the floating Miranda, you cannot help but recall the wedding ring and experience the mystery of initiation inherent in the marriage ritual.

Composed for a wedding but also as the playwright’s formal farewell to the theater, Shakespeare’s last play is a strange piece of work. Fueled by the thirst for vengeance though not tragic, ending in a wedding though not comic, “The Tempest” is ornamented by spectacle and framed as a religious ritual. Offering no explicit argument with religion, instead Shakespeare calls for an exorcism of vengeance via a communion of imagination. Prospero’s final speech reconfigures the addressee of the “Our Father”: “As you from crimes would pardoned be,/ Let your indulgence set me free.” Prospero asks forgiveness not of God but of the audience. He dispels the “fourth wall” in order to plead for final applause. The moral of “The Tempest” is not forgive and forget but remember, have mercy, and place one’s hope in the sympathy of strangers, in the power of our imaginations. Shakespeare has slyly substituted for the pious faith of institutional religion, the fantastic act of imagining fostered by theater, magic, and poetry.

During Teller’s “Tempest,” the performance was interrupted throughout the night by applause: the tricks were too wonderful for the audience to remain politely silent. Yet in answer to Shakespeare’s final speech, exquisitely recited by Larry Yaddo — “release me from my bands/ With the help of your good hands./ Gentle breath of yours my sails/ Must fill, or else my project fails” — the audience was clapping even before he made his magic wand disappear, a wonderful effect that felt like a consummation, and that brought the house to its feet.

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Christian Sheppard blogs about all things strange, about wonder and horror in literature, film, and the culture at large. He is presently finishing an historical horror novel about chariot-racing, witchcraft and demonic possession in the dark ages of Byzantine Constantinople. He is also editing a non-fiction book "The Ancient Wisdom of Baseball," on baseball and religion, a philosophical "apologia" for raising his first child a Cubs fan. He teaches at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago: http://www.saic.edu/profiles/faculty/christianmsheppard/

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