CIRCUS, Vaudeville, magic show, Hollywood epic . . . SHAKESPEARE? "The Tempest," Arena's splashy season opener, is showbiz Shakespeare, the Bard according to Busby Berkeley and Barnum & Bailey.

There's not a spared expense in sight of this opulently overblown production. The acting would be reason enough to see it, even without benefit of Arena's giant toybox of a set. But the state is full of surprises -- swings, ropes, trapdoors and appearing and disappearing turquoise pools -- and feats of magic that would turn Doug Henning green.

For all the dazzle and dash, the play's still the thing. Director Garland Wright gives us Prospero the creator -- a stand-in for Shakespeare himself, for the Artist, the Father, God.

Wright has dispensed with Shakespeare's shipwreck prologue, instead opening with Prospero on a bare stage, drawing oversized chessmen from a pit, setting them and the tale in motion.

The fantasy speaks of the strength of the written word -- books are the source of Prospero/Shakespeare/Man's magic and power. Prospero the jealous creator sits on the sidelines watching his creatures, amused, displeased, occasionally jerking the strings, but realizing in the end the limits of his control.

Written at a time when England was fascinated by the colonies, "The Tempest" contains many allusions to the terrors and treasures of the New World. There are messages as well for modern man -- Prospero loses control over one of his darker creations, but in the end chooses "reason over fury." The Bard's next-to-last play also contains what is widely thought of as his farewell speech, movingly delivered by Prospero in the play's coda.

Wright and his cast have taken liberties with the language and the delivery -- it's often an unrecognizable "Tempest" -- but no disservice is done. Several minor scenes are enhanced by Wright's fervid imagination. A comic transitional scene among Caliban, Trinculo (played as Red Buttons) and Stephano (played as Stan Laurel) is expanded into rich slapstick that develops plot while it splits sides.

In league with the wizardy of set designer John Arnone and lighting designer Frances Aronson, Wright provides an eyeful with every earful. The trio conjure a world of wonders from an austere stage of bleached wood. Like the Folger's current "King Lear," the set steals a few scenes, and quite a few gallons of water fly through the air.

As for the cast, Stanley Anderson is the center of gravity as the weary and noble Prospero. Gymnastic John Leonard has a bit of the brat about him as Prospero's indentured spirit Ariel. And as the villainous slave Caliban, Richard Bauer has a romp, giving a performance excessive even by his own scene-chewing standard. Unrecognizable in his mangy makeup, Bauer is a truly wretched wretch, hissing and convulsing. The numerous supporting players are also fine.

As Prospero himself might put it, this "Tempest" is such stuff as dreams are made on.

THE TEMPEST -- At Arena Stage through November 11.