IF YOU'VE EVER wondered just what a director does, the American National Theater Company's exhilarating, exasperating "The Count of Monte Cristo" should clear things up quickly.

As directed by Peter Sellars, this revival of James O'Neill's century-old adaptation of Alexandre Dumas' romance is a primer in directorial will and skill. It's all taken to extremes, but shrewdly controlled, with a remarkable vision of what theater can be.

There's no timidity here. For his Kennedy Center debut, Sellars has rushed in and shaken the audience by its shoulders, taking full advantage of the trademarks of melodrama, filtered through the new visual possibilities suggested by the movies.

In its delicious lunacy, "The Count" teems with colorful characters, intricate entanglements, emotional excess and asides to the audience (these accentuated with instant blackouts, while the character in question ducks into a puddle of light.)

Without neglecting Dumas' rollercoaster plot and high romance, Sellars underlines the play's political undertones -- simply put, it's the tale of Edmond Dantes, an innocent man imprisoned so that a crooked official can protect his own position. By adding illuminating inserts from the King James Bible and world's-end ruminations from Lord Byron, Sellars speaks of this world as well, alluding to governmental tyranny and the threat of annihilation.

While it may at first appear to be an incongruous mix of several different plays, there's a method to this madness. Sellars makes it hang together and shows himself an inventive storyteller, neatly bridging chasms of time and space with a lighting change or a sound effect.

The production boasts a rare integration of visual design, sound and light. George Tsypin's jaw-dropping set opens up the Eisenhower Theater all the way to the back wall and up to the rafters, with all the catwalks, elevators and lighting grids in plain view. Sellars, playing with perspective, has positioned his actors all over it -- they sometimes wander far above us.

Tsypin's furnishings draw on industrial sources, with gleaming black fire-escape towers, and an omnipresent trio of faintly sinister black glass-and-lacquer armoires that glide silently about the stage, now representing Dantes' ship, now releasing characters, now recombining to become a posh conservatory.

In fact, "Count" may be worth seeing for its visual wit alone: Tossed from the cliff at the cavernous Chateau d'If, the shroud- wrapped Dantes makes his escape, plunging three stories into roiling Mylar waves, creating a pluming splash of styrofoam packing chips. Sellars has scattered what's-wrong- with-this-picture anachronisms throughout, like the jarring, garish Constructivist-inspired makeup worn by some of the actors.

Sellars likes to provoke audiences, as in one unsettling second-act scene that consists entirely of four minutes of the onstage string quartet excerpting Arthur Schnittler's difficult String Quartet No. 2, which creates tension with its maddening, shrieking dissonances. The mercurial lighting by James F. Ingalls and sound design by Lenny Will are almost as crucial as the dialogue itself.

Though it's Sellars' show, his actors come through with a studied brinkmanship. Given the oversized passions of melodrama, it's often necessary to play it to the hilt, and Sellars gets extreme performances from everyone. Then, in the final sequence of duels and disclosure, set in murky darkness, he calls on them to rein in the emotions till the tension is palpable.

As the wronged Dantes, Richard Thomas is impressive and powerful, sailing in as impossibly pure as Melville's Billy Budd, gradually becoming a man possessed by dark thoughts of revenge. In a neat bit of casting, South African actor Zakes Mokae plays the wicked prosecutor Villefort, who condemns Dantes to save his own skin. Playing the dual role of Dantes' father and the ancient Abb,e Faria, David Warrilow creates a howling, spectral presence. The only casting flaw is Michael O'Keefe, who, though he cuts a dashing figure as Albert Mondego, the son of Dantes' rival, drains some crucial tension from the final scenes with his lackluster delivery.

The history of ANT rightfully begins with this production. Sellars has packed every moment with something to see and hear and feel. So go see it. (But don't blink.)

HE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO -- At the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater through June 22.