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What Fun These Morsels Be!

By Jane Horwitz
Speical to The Washington Post
Friday, May 14, 1999

  Movie Critic

'A Midsummer Night's Dream'
Kevin Kline and Michelle Pfeiffer are under the influence of fairy dust. (Fox Searchlight)

Michael Hoffman
Kevin Kline;
Michelle Pfeiffer;
Rupert Everett;
Stanley Tucci;
Calista Flockhart;
David Strathairn;
Christian Bale;
Sophie Marceau
Running Time:
2 hours
Brief scenes of semi-nudity, mild sexual innuendo and an instance of scatological humor
"Masterpiece Theatre" loosens its corset, climbs onto a rickety turn-of-the-century bicycle and rattles off on a breathless Tuscan holiday in "William Shakespeare's 'A Midsummer Night's Dream.'" Only the title is clunky in this felicitous marriage of cinematic trickery, theatrical whimsy and the Bard's fabulous tale.

Adapted and directed by Michael Hoffman, who's shown dexterity with contemporary romantic comedy ("One Fine Day"), lavish costume fables ("Restoration") and just plain silliness ("Soapdish"), "Dream" keeps much of the poetry and plot intact, though cuts have been made. In contrast to the ever-so-hip 1996 teen flick "William Shakespeare's 'Romeo & Juliet,'" the text that survives here remains perfectly intelligible and often lovely to hear.

Still, some in the cast negotiate Shakespeare's lines better than others. Kevin Kline's stage savvy serves him especially well as a movie-stealing Bottom, the humble weaver whose encounter with fairies in the woods turns him into a man-donkey complete with heehaw. Instead of the traditional donkey's head, he sports a huge pair of fuzzy ears and lots of facial hair, his face still visible.

Kline and Hoffman sketch a poignant Bottom. In a few wordless scenes, they portray one of Shakespeare's great buffoons as a henpecked husband and frustrated actor who longs only for a few hours of escape with his buddies to rehearse "Pyramus and Thisbe" in the woods.

Instead of Shakespeare's Athens, Hoffman dreams his "Dream" in a gorgeous Tuscan hill town at the turn of the century, with production designer Luciana Arrighi and costume designer Gabriella Pescucci creating a luscious milieu of dusty green shutters, olive groves and vineyards reminiscent of the 1986 Merchant-Ivory gem "A Room With a View."

The local duke, Theseus (David Strathairn), will soon celebrate his nuptials with the fair Hippolyta (French actress Sophie Marceau of "Braveheart" and "Firelight," but clearly not of Shakespeare). Before the partying can begin, though, the duke must settle a squabble.

Stern Egeus (Bernard Hill) wants his daughter Hermia (Anna Friel) to marry Demetrius (Christian Bale), but Hermia's in love with Lysander (Dominic West) and he with her. Egeus asks the reluctant duke to force Hermia to obey him on pain of death. So Hermia and Lysander flee into the woods. So does Demetrius, who loves Hermia though she loves him not. And he's hotly pursued by Hermia's dithery best friend, Helena (Calista Flockhart, whiny and not quite up to the text), who adores Demetrius, though he loves her not.

Bottom and his blue-collar pals (Max Wright as Robin Starveling, Roger Rees as Peter Quince, Bill Irwin as Snout, Sam Rockwell as Flute and Gregory Jbara as Snug the joiner) are in the woods, too, rehearsing their play "most obscenely" in hopes of performing it at the duke's wedding. (When they finally present it, they're quite wonderfully awful.)

Unseen by these mortals are beams of light that blossom into glittery humanesque creatures. They inhabit the wooded fairy kingdom of Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer), who, despite being ridiculously gorgeous and well-spoken, have marital difficulties. Oberon asks his consigliere sprite, Puck (Stanley Tucci, a tad too earthbound), to play a trick on chilly Titania, making her fall in love with the first thing she spies upon waking, which, of course, is Bottom's donkey-self; they have a night of love and oats.

Puck mistakenly scrambles the young couples' emotions with potions, finally reordering them so that all is requited. Hoffman's delicious Italianate "Dream" jibes nicely with Shakespeare's tradition of resolving romantic difficulties in nature's realm, whether it be the Forest of Arden, "a wood near Athens" or a Tuscan grove.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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