“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” a torn and emotional Prospero says near the end of The Tempest, Shakespeare's brilliant homage to the magic of theater. For director Carey Perloff and American Conservatory Theater, these dreams take on the bittersweet aura that goes with the yearning to top oneself and then to top oneself again. While the result is often spectacular, the production staggers from time to time under the weight of its own ambitions.

The Tempest has everything theater aspires to: wild magic, splendid language, noble heroes, powerful spirits, a beautiful princess, a raging monster, besotted lovers, even bumbling clowns. (Last Wednesday it had the added excitement of a real storm outside.) With the ironic exceptions of the three leading roles — David Strathairn as Prospero, David Patrick Kelly as Ariel, and Vera Farmiga as Miranda — Perloff has made this a hometown celebration: The Kronos Quartet supplies the evocative musical accompaniment, and shadow artist Larry Reed adds to the visual atmosphere. But Perloff's focus remains the Geary itself and its fabulous restoration to glory.

The gold velvet curtain drawn across the stage as the audience files in is part of the display, intended to emphasize theater itself and the difference between the reality of the outside world and that of the stage. So intent is Perloff on making this point, she adds a short scene as prologue: Prospero, dressed as the wealthy Duke of Milan, gives a toy ship to the young Miranda and gently mimes a storm as they cross in front of the promontory of Kate Edmunds' glacierlike set. It's an unnecessary pause before the action, an odd dumb show that slows what has yet to start.

Prospero as magician appears next; with a miniature sea in a crystal bowl, he dips his fingers into the water to make waves — shadowed by projections on the white backdrop — and the storm begins in earnest. It's a stunning effect: Billowing sails fill the stage, masts crack and collapse, winds blow. But instead of staging the scene as written, with sailors voicing their terror as the ship disintegrates — the play actually starts here — Perloff visually projects the lines of dialogue onto the shifting wreck. This certainly calls attention to the design (marvelously enhanced by Peter Maradudin's artful lighting), but the words are hard to see and make sense of. Worse, it reminds us that Perloff is the conjurer, not Prospero, played unassumingly by Strathairn, whose loose-fitting gray costume (by Deborah Dryden) causes him to blend into the scenery he should be dominating.

Miranda appears and the storm abruptly ends, as though it were a bad dream. She has heard the sailors' cries and demands to know if her father's magic has cost them their lives. He assures her all are safe. He then tells her at last of her royal origins and his displacement as Duke of Milan by his brother, Antonio. With that he causes her to fall into a deep sleep and calls for the spirit Ariel to appear.

Released from an enchanted bondage by Prospero when he first arrived on the island, Ariel is the duke's sworn servant. He longs for freedom, though, which Prospero has promised. This latest storm has brought to the island the duke's enemies, including the villainous Antonio. Now Prospero needs but Ariel's abilities and two days to set all things right and return to his kingdom.

There are a couple of minor complications. One is Caliban (splendidly played by a hulkish Graham Beckel), the monster Prospero found orphaned, whom he adopted and taught to speak (his language is among Shakespeare's most elegant), only to be repaid by Caliban's attempted rape of Miranda. Now reduced to a life as Prospero's slave, Caliban is bitter and seeks revenge.

Then there is the drunken butler, Stephano (Geoff Hoyle), who would be ruler of this island he has been shipwrecked on, along with his simple-minded cohort, the jester Trinculo (Michael Tucker). Stephano plies Caliban with wine and plots his takeover.

Of course nothing and no one is a match for the duo of Prospero and Ariel, and — as in all good dreams — love and virtue triumph easily in the end. It's as though Shakespeare can hardly wait to get to the stunning denouement in which Prospero sheds his symbolic cloak and renounces his “rough magic,” returning voluntarily to ordinary manhood.

Perloff, too, clearly adores the end. The breaking of the spell is dramatically wrought by Prospero's ripping through the paper backdrop, creating a cavelike door by which the players enter and exit. But the best is saved for the touching epilogue: Prospero appears by himself, all the scenery drops away, and the house lights come up. With the magical backstage of the Geary thus fully exposed, Prospero begs us to release him.

There are so many rewarding moments to this Tempest, it seems churlish to want more. I was entranced by David Patrick Kelly's Ariel, as he cast his spell over the lovers, first with pipes like Pan's, then with a single-headed drum. Kelly makes it all look effortless. In a gracefully athletic performance (enhanced by Dryden's costume — a simple bodysuit accented by a single plume of a pheasant's feather worn like a flag on top of his head) he infuses his Ariel with such a burning desire for freedom, he manages to create his own high-ly compelling dramatic through-line. And, as staged here, he is literally Prospero's shadow master: When he stands behind Prospero and brings on the tempest by thrusting his fist heavenward, he is the source of magical power.

But as Prospero, David Strathairn is a disappointment. He is dwarfed by the set and effects and never manages to take command. His best moments come when he is racked with emotion and tenderness, especially toward Miranda, played with buoyant freshness by newcomer Vera Farmiga.

I also admired Daniel Cantor as the young Prince Ferdinand and James Carpenter as his father, the usurping king of Naples, to whom Prospero's brother has relinquished his kingdom. Michael Tucker as the clown Trinculo is a delight, and Geoff Hoyle does the drunken butler with comic aplomb.

Still, when the show was over and the lights came up, it was the Geary Theater we were all applauding. And while it shines as ACT's “brave new world,” I kept wishing the play had taken center stage.

The Tempest runs through Feb. 18 at the Geary Theater in S.F.; call 749-2228.

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