Such stuff as dreams are made on.
Not all happy dreams, of course, because William Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” never has been that kind of play.
And the world premiere of a re-imagined “Tempest” (at The Smith Center through April 27) is definitely not that kind of production, which is all to the good — and, more often than not, to the great.
In adapting and directing what’s believed to be Shakespeare’s final play, collaborators Teller (the smaller, quieter half of Penn &Teller) and Aaron Posner (an award-winning playwright and director) have dreamed up a veritable phantasmagoria of delights.
Not all of their ideas work all the time. But enough of them do to make this “Tempest” a uniquely imaginative voyage.
Let’s start with the playhouse itself: a big, billowy tent on the Symphony Park lawn, filled with the sort of bleacher-style seats you might find at a rural fairground.
It’s the perfect home for Daniel Conway’s deliriously fanciful set, equal parts weathered ship (complete with crow’s nest) and vintage traveling carnival, complete with madly whirling carousel.
Such a carnival also would have a magic show, presided over by a conjurer such as Prospero (a dashing, mercurial Tom Nelis), tossing off ingenious magic tricks with throwaway ease. To say nothing of the more-than-able assistance of the ethereal spirit Ariel (alias the otherworldly, otherweirdly — and I mean that as a compliment — Nate Dendy.)
Ah, but Prospero has more on his mind than magic. Once upon a time, he was the scholarly Duke of Milan — before his own brother, Antonio (a sly Louis Butelli), deposed him and shipped Prospero off to all-but-certain death in a less-than-seaworthy vessel.
A dozen years later, Prospero has prospered in exile, building his magical powers while ruling an island realm populated by his blossoming daughter Miranda (endearingly wide-eyed Charlotte Graham), the aforementioned Ariel and a shape-shifting, sideshow-worthy monster named Caliban. (The latter is played by Manelich Minniefee and Zachary Eisenstat, who manage their shared role’s off-the-charts technical difficulties with remarkable aplomb.)
And when Prospero conjures the title storm, a cataclysmic shipwreck conveniently maroons those who have wronged him — not only the poisonous Antonio but his co-conspirators Alonso (Christopher Donahue), the King of Naples, and Alonso’s brother Sebastian (Edmund Lewis).
A few genuine innocents also wash ashore, from the king’s son Ferdinand (Joby Earle, an earnestly charming prince indeed) to generous Gonzala (Dawn Didawick), whose loyalty ensured Prospero’s and Miranda’s, survival. As to the innocence of perpetually soused party guys Stephano and Trinculo (the deft, droll duo of Eric Hissom and Jonathan M. Kim), they were probably too drunk to be in on the conspiracy in the first place.
Thus the stage is set for Prospero’s vengeance — assuming, of course, he still craves it.
Throughout, Teller and Posner keep the play, and the players, moving in snappy fashion, positioning the actors on, around and atop the set as nimbly as if they were toddlers eagerly exploring every inch of the world’s most enchanted (and enchanting) jungle gym.
This “Tempest” works the carnival metaphor for all it’s worth, from the weathered flair of Tony-winner Paloma Young’s costumes and the molten-gold glow of Tony-winner Christopher Akerlind’s lighting to the cast’s stylized movements, choreographed by the endlessly flexible Pilobolus troupe and its associate artistic director, Matt Kemp.
Providing pitch-perfect musical counterpoint: the on-stage Rough Magic band (led by musical director Shaina Taub), pumping out sardonic, strangely exhilarating versions of world-weary Tom Waits-Kathleen Brennan songs that prove perfectly tuned to “The Tempest’s” dramatic and emotional developments.
With so many striking elements in play, however, something’s got to give.
And, more often than not, it’s Shakespeare’s glorious language.
Trimming the text to make room for all the magic and the movement and the music, Teller and Posner have, inevitably, thrown a lot overboard. What’s left is brisk and compelling, to be sure, but some crucial context is gone. And that, also inevitably, robs this “Tempest” of some its inherent richness and resonance.
If you’ve never seen “The Tempest” before, you won’t miss what isn’t there. I did miss it — a little — but certainly not enough to make this revamp (co-produced by the Harvard-affiliated American Repertory Theatre, where it moves after its Las Vegas debut) anything less than captivating. Miss it at your peril.