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Two directors transform ‘They fight’ into complex stagecraft in ‘Macbeth’

Aaron Posner, (left) and Teller, from the magical duo Penn & Teller, direct a production of "Macbeth" that opens April 25 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Though known for writing lengthy soliloquies, William Shakespeare does not offer a lot of guidance with his description of the dramatic business before the last scene of “Macbeth”:

“They fight.”

Not much to go on. Which is why plays have a director or, in the case of the upcoming production of “Macbeth” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, two directors: Aaron Posner and Teller, the silent half of the popular Penn & Teller magical duo.

“We’re going to take it from toward the end of the fight,” said Posner, during a rehearsal last week.


No need for a spoiler alert with Shakespeare. But the directors asked that I not reveal any surprises, of which there are many. So let’s just say Macbeth, having left a trail of butchery and betrayal at the goading of his ambitious wife, is about to get his due.

“You’re now completely surrounded by all these people,” Teller said to Ian Merrill Peakes, who plays Macbeth. “And that’s when we go to the blackout.”

If your reaction to the above is “He speaks?” you’re not alone.  Everyone I mentioned meeting Teller said the exact same thing, even though that’s like wondering how NBA star Chris Paul gets along with his insurance selling brother, Cliff. It’s an act, one he’ll happily expound upon.

“I think people really enjoy the idea of somebody living his life without talking,” Teller said. “That’s a really cool thing to think about. Because, when you take away talk, there’s so much you add. My experience as a performer on stage is that when you don’t talk there’s a tremendous intimacy with the audience. I think people enjoy that idea and like playing with it. People who talk to me will later say, ‘Oh yeah, he never talks.’ It’s not stupidity, it’s conspiracy; they’re conspiring with me and I’m conspiring with them to help make that idea come to life. We think there so much power in speech, but theres so much power in stillness.”

I’ll have to trust him there, myself being a PWC, or “person with chattiness,” a quality Teller shares when not in character.

“Backstage, you can’t shut me up,” he said.

During the three hours I watched rehearsals, Posner, who has directed hundreds of plays in regional theaters across the country, took the lead, on his feet, fine-tuning expressions, adjusting entrances, occasionally conferring with Teller.

The two directed the CST’s 2015 acclaimed “The Tempest,” with Teller providing a variety of jaw-dropping feats for the magician Prospero. With “Macbeth” the Weird Sisters — the three witches — will be casting spells and singing, their role given new prominence.

“One of the things we are trying to do is let the Weird Sisters be more active, to move among the characters, the way we feel invisible forces move among us in real life,” said Teller.

“Macbeth” is being carefully crafted: rehearsals will stretch almost seven weeks. The fight, which they’ve already re-staged five different ways, was walked through again, in slow motion, with swords clashing and actors shifting around.

“I think we want a chance to appreciate this figure,” said Teller. “That might be even scarier.”

The rehearsal mood was light for such a heavy play, with frequent joking—so much that occasionally Posner reined them in.

“If we could keep this as focused a room as possible,” he called out. “Thank you very much.”

As with all good directors, there is easy collaboration. Blocking the fight, Posner tells Peakes to assume a certain attitude as the lights fall.

“You want that image at the end?” asked Peakes, in evident disagreement. “This is not an aggressive act.”

He comes up with another suggestion.

“It’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

“You had mentioned the possibility of her above,” said Teller, and Lady Macbeth relocates to the balcony.

I wondered whether two directors might cause confusion, but the actors find the opposite is true.

“They both have their keenest eye on the storytelling, making sure it catches the clarity of each moment,” said Andrew White, who plays Banquo. “They’re both completely focused on what’s going to tell the story in the moment, and what is going to accomplish the themes of the play and what they want to the play to mean.”

“Macbeth” opens April 25 and runs at Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s new Yard space at Navy Pier through June 24.