The Tempest: Mayhem, Mischief and Magic at the A.R.T. through June 15

tempest    If you took Shakespeare’s final play, the clanking, dark cabaret music of Tom Waits and the one-named magician/director called Teller and toss them into a blender. What do you get?

“The Tempest,” an intriguing, if sometimes confusing, hybrid of a two-hour show now up at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge through June 15. It had a brief run in Las Vegas before making its (pre-Broadway?) east coast debut at the Loeb Center. (Press night was Thursday.) It’s a co-production between the A.R.T. and the Vegas-based Smith Center for the Arts, adapted and co-directed by Teller (of Penn &) and Aaron Posner. Waits’ wife Kathleen Brennan is his musical collaborator – they’re friends of Teller’s and gave the creators permission to pluck from much of his rich catalog for this re-envisioning.

One thing I share with Waits: I’m not a huge Shakespeare buff. I can get tangled up in the language, dizzying characters and crisscrossing plot-lines. That was sometimes the case here. But to parse the plot: The duke Prospero (a charismatic Tom Nelis) gets shipwrecked on an island and yearns for vengeance against his younger brother Antonio (Louis Butelli) who set him adrift after usurping from him the throne of Milan.  Prospero is cast away with his young daughter. Over a dozen years, Prospero has become a sorcerer and conjures up a tempest to get his enemies (and others) shipwrecked to join him. There’s much ado about him and his now-grown daughter Miranda (the terrific, wide-eyed Charlotte Graham) and Miranda’s marriage to the shipwrecked Ferdinand (Joby Earle) and, finally, a dilemma where Prospero must wrestle with the idea of giving up magic in order to bring his family home – he wants his daughter and future husband to be happy – and is considering forgiveness of those who’ve wronged him. “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance,” Prospero muses.

I loved the magic. (There’s much more in the second act.) It was created by Vegas Illusionist/consultant Johnny Thompson and the main practitioners are Prospero and his lithe aiding “spirit” Ariel (a ghostly Nate Dendy). They were truly deft, maybe even Penn & Teller-level. A few examples: A flat dining table is covered with a cloth and as the cloth is whisked away, there’s food, wine and a duck on a covered platter that – whoosh – becomes a skull when the cover is raised a second time.  (A surviving stage direction from Shakespeare has the phrase “”with a quaint device, the banquet vanishes.” Probably never like this, though.) There’s a scene where Ariel vanishes and Prospero is instantaneously appears in his place. And the highlight is where Prospero gracefully levitates Miranda during Waits’ “Shiny Things.”

Daniel Conway’s set seemed both stunning and utilitarian – an A.R.T. standard, really – with the action set on multi-levels (one cube containing the band) and frequent goings-on behind, and emerging from, the curtains. A steampunk carnival on a magical island.

I am a big Waits fan and the Rough Magic quartet captured Waits perfectly, albeit utilizing shimmering female vocals (from musical director Shaina Taub and Miche Braden) and not the trademark Waits croak-growl.  Early on, they played the dark lullaby “Dirt in the Ground” – as in “We’re all just going to be ..” – and it served a dual purpose, both foreboding and calming. Overall, the score, as played by Rough Magic, was the perfect complement. They had it all – the jarring percussion, the shambolic clatter, the sighing accordion, the moaning upright bass and a most gorgeous instrumental piece played mostly on a set of glasses high up above the stage … sublime.

Things got particularly tangled when contortionists Manelich Minniefee, from Pilobolus Dance Company, and Zachary Eisenstat began wreaking havoc. Rolling and tumbling, braying-in-unison, they played the monster Caliban as conjoined twins. Their dexterity was astonishing, but their character was braying and annoying. Yes, on purpose, I’m sure. The slave Caliban is an island native – his name is a near anagram for cannibal – and he’s become Prospero’s slave. When “The Tempest” got talky and draggy – and the first act was particularly so – it also became difficult to unscramble the alliances, who meant what to whom.

Although a fine production, it didn’t wow me like the A.R.T.’s spectacular “The Heart of Robin Hood.”

“The Tempest” begins with Rough Magic playing “Everything You Can Think,” boasting a resonant rejoinder of “Everything you can think of is true” and ends with “Innocent when you dream.” Sing the Rough Magic ladies: “It’s such a sad old feeling/The fields are soft and green/It’s memories that I’m stealing/But you’re innocent when you dream.” A lovely opening and a wistful farewell.  A lot of mischief, mayhem and magic in between.

(This is a version of a review I wrote that ran in the Cape Cod Times.)

Tickets: $25-$65.

The Tempest at the Loeb Drama Center through June 15, 64 Brattle St., Cambridge, 617-548-8300