Tempest Fugit: Grastorf?s grad student quickly sets off a storm of activity.
Tempest Fugit: Grastorf?s grad student quickly sets off a storm of activity.

If you see only one play during the six-month-long Shakespeare in Washington festival, see Rough Magic.

Now, the Rorschach Theatre troops are gonna slap that sentence into a Web ad within the next five minutes, never mind that the actual production they’ve staged had more than a few bumpy spots on opening weekend. But more marketing power to ’em: Even a rough take on Rough Magic turns out to be kinda fun, if only because the play itself proves an inspired choice for an impoverished but balls-to-the-wall theater company taking part in a big, citywide celebration of all things Shakespeare.

Inspired how? Well, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s darkly funny takeoff on The Tempest is a neat little juggler’s trick, a shoutout to the Bard, the theater business, and comic books all at once; there’s a nod to the Greeks here, a hat-tip to the Broadway musical there, and shameless lifts from Shakespeare left and right. Theater History 101, in other words, gets sliced and diced and slotted into an unrepentantly meta adventure featuring a monstrous villain, his nasty henchmen, and a team of motley misfits scrambling to save the world—which is why, if you’re gonna see just one Shakespeare in Washington show, this brash little Cliffs Notes (by way of the Justice League) survey might as well be it.

Leading the heroic charge, of all things, is a dramaturge, that bookish, behind-the-scenes creature who researches a play so a director doesn’t have to—a dramaturge with magical powers, no less. Sound a little labored? Nah: Aguirre-Sacasa writes for Marvel Comics as well as for the stage, so for him it’s not much of a stretch. He starts with the notion that The Tempest is less fantasy than roman à clef: There was a “real” Prospero, claims a kittenish Columbia University lecturer (the delightful Gwen Grastorf) at the top of the show, and he’s probably still out there on his enchanted island. If that’s plausible, why not a script doctor with a knack for bringing characters off the page and into full-blooded life in the real world? (“Shakespeare works best, and the Greeks, and musicals,” says Tracy Lynn Olivera’s brisk Melanie, explaining her power, “and sometimes Tennessee Williams, I don’t know why”—though the audience does, which is how the best of Aguirre-Sacasa’s jokes work.)

And in a play that takes 500-year-old sorcerers and supernaturally gifted theater geeks as givens, it only makes sense that when a pissed-off Prospero tracks his stolen spellbook to modern-day Manhattan, the trail leads directly to the dramaturge’s door—you only have to watch one episode of Heroes to know how duh-obvious that is.

Sounds fun, no? The trouble, or one of them anyway, is that what works beautifully within the highly charged freeze-frames of the comics universe—the heavy-lidded hero’s ironic thought-bubble dialogue, the punch line delivered in extreme close-up, the battles that flare up and flame out by the time you turn the page—turns out to be dangerously risky in the full-motion, real-time world of live theater. So staging this play must be as tricky as filming a comic, if not more so—one misstep, one tone-deaf moment, and you’re in territory as tiresomely campy as those godawful trailers seem to promise Ghost Rider’s gonna be. Take Rough Magic’s nightclub drag extravaganza, which stars the lead Fury from the Oresteia, for instance: What would be a scream in a deftly executed panel or two turns into, well, a drag when stretched out for a full two minutes.

There’s good stuff here—Eric Grims’ set, all forced perspective and graphic-novel style, is sheer genius, and Frank Labovitz’s costumes are similarly smart—but on the whole, director Jenny McConnell Frederick has more luck with inspiration than with execution. That’s partly because Rorschach, inventive troupe though it is, doesn’t have a Warner Bros. budget, so too many effects come off feeling underdeveloped. (Hey, guys: How ’bout a prop flare that burns long enough for our hero to finish threatening to torch Prospero’s book with it?)

And it’s partly because half her cast is too green to negotiate the play’s tricky pivots. Not so the delightful Olivera: She’s a trouper with superb comic timing, and her coolly competent Melanie keeps the whole business from coming completely apart. And not so Cesar A. Guadamuz, who’s literally green (and amusingly reptilian) as often as not: He plays Caliban—a good guy in this version of the Tempest tale—who spends half the play fighting a spell designed to transform him into a lizard.

But for every agreeably goofy pubescent lifeguard (Dustin Loomis as the “child warrior” waving that flare), there’s an unfunny bit featuring that awkwardly vamping Fury. (Grady Weatherford made a fine Bard in last year’s Beard of Avon, but as an immortal avenger lip-synching to the Weather Girls, he’s seriously out of his element.) And for every genuinely eerie moment (tyro actor Danny Gavigan serves up several as a decidedly ill-tempered Ariel), there’s a hissing villainess played too broadly (Diana Cherkas’ distinctly unthreatening Sasia).

Wackiest of all is Vasanth Santosham’s scenery-gobbling Prospero: The only thing more overripe than his outsize snarling is his full-skirted, bare-chested Ming the Merciless get-up, and the only thing less comprehensible than his mushy diction is the echoing silence that follows each flamboyant smash of his staff against the stage floor. (Umm, scary magic sound effect, anyone? How hard could it be?)

And that, to put it mildly, is a problem: Aguirre-Sacasa’s instincts are as dark as the darkest Batman writer’s (ask anyone who saw his genuinely creepy The Velvet Sky at Woolly Mammoth last year), and Rough Magic keeps pushing deeper into that grim twilight territory. Its humor shades from broody to downright black as the action continues, and the laughs land more and more uneasily as the appalling malevolence of his Prospero becomes increasingly clear—or they would, perhaps, if there was anything remotely fearful about Santosham’s sorcerer.

As things are, though, the balance is desperately off, and sequences designed to make the skin crawl merely set the teeth on edge. It’s not fatal—but it’s not nearly as much fun as it could be.