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Weekly Alibi "A Midsummer Night's Dream"

By Devin D. O'Leary

MAY 24, 1999:  Poor William Shakespeare. The guy could be making a mint out in Hollywood right now. He's the hottest thing in movies since former "Fresh Prince" Will Smith left D.J. Jazzy Jeff standing in an unemployment line somewhere. Now, before you get all high-minded on me and start railing against the concept of a modern-day Shakespeare selling out to Hollywood, bear in mind that Willy-boy was the Steven Spielberg of his day, cranking out blockbuster after blockbuster for the appreciative masses of Merry Olde England. Shakespeare's stuff appealed to every stratum of society--from the well-bred society dames up in the balcony to the unwashed groundlings who appreciated a good butt joke when they saw one. For all the highbrow literary patina Shakespeare has accrued over the centuries, he was a high-concept Hollywood hitmaker through and through.

The latest of Shakespeare's plays to hit the big screen is his comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. Unlike Shakespeare's other efforts, A Midsummer Night's Dream has seen few filmic adaptations. (The weird but captivating 1935 version starring James Cagney and Woody Allen's 1982 send-up, A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, are among the few.) Dream is Shakespeare's most stagebound work--a silly farce intended, largely, to lampoon the conventions of traditional theater. It is, as Shakespeare himself calls it, "a weak and idle theme." Needless to say, a star-packed Hollywood movie isn't the best medium for lampooning the conventions of traditional European theater.

Director Michael Hoffman has assembled an enviable cast with which to tackle the Bard. Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci and Calista Flockhart are among the actors to suit up here. For some reason, Hoffman has chosen to transplant the play from ancient Greece to late-1800s Tuscany. This allows the cast to adopt a more modern wardrobe and to spend a lot of time tooling around on bicycles. Aside from the switch in time, Hoffman keeps much of Shakespeare's plot and poetic dialogue intact.

Our story begins as young lovers Hermia (cute Anna Friel) and Lysander (hunky Dominic West) flee deep into the forest to escape Hermia's mean old father who wishes her to marry Demetrius (stiff Christian Bale). Soon, Demetrius wanders into the forest himself in search of his true love Hermia. Following close on Demetrius' heels is Helena (Calista Flockhart, doing her same shrill "Ally McBeal" shtick), who is hopelessly in love with the man. Everyone, you see, is in love with someone else. Things only get worse, of course, when the squabbling King and Queen of Fairies (the equally gorgeous Rupert Everett and Michelle Pfeiffer) stumble on to the scene, and a jilted King Oberon sends his fairy trickster Puck (sublime Stanley Tucci) to liberally dose everyone in sight with a magical love potion. Numerous romantic mix-ups ensue. ... And then the actors show up.

Contained within A Midsummer Night's Dream is a boisterous parody of bad theater, as an ensemble of amateur actors wanders into the woods to practice their play, The Most Lamentable Comedy and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisbe. Kevin Kline has a great time as Bottom, the bombastic thespian who is soon transformed into an ass and seduced by the love potion-besotted Queen of the Fairies. After all the romantic bait-and-switch is said and done, we are booted out of the sylvan glen to witness a full performance of Pyramus and Thisbe in front of the Duke and a few freshly married couples. It's an odd transition in the play and comes off even odder on screen. For 70 percent of the film, we're watching lovers and ancient gods engage in a mystical version of "Three's Company." For the remaining 30 percent, we're watching a play being performed. Granted, the play is a gut-buster, and Kevin Kline unleashes all the bad acting skills he can muster with hilarious aplomb. Still, it can be argued that Hoffman has wasted too much time on the stagebound spectacle, and would have been better off trimming it.

With gods, actors, lovers, bicycles and mud wrestling on tap, Hoffman (director of the merely OK historical drama Restoration and the merely OK soap opera parody Soapdish) chucks all semblance of believability and goes for pure theatrical camp. Sets are stagey. Costumes are exaggerated (lots of cheesy wire fairy wings and body glitter). On the plus side, Hoffman keeps most of his cast scantily clad throughout, and the actors at least have the good sense to have fun with the randy, pun-filled material. Romance, nudity, big stars, special effects and a running ass joke? Sounds like a summer movie to me.

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