Two actors were misidentified in Tuesday's review of the Shakespeare Theatre's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Cameron Folmar played Snug and Eric Hoffmann played Flute. (Published 11/18/99)

Joe Calarco's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which opened last night at the Shakespeare Theatre, is the product of such a luxuriant and sophisticated eye that you root for it to be better than it is. The evening begins audaciously, with what looks like an inventive rethinking of this familiar play, but then slowly, inexorably, just stops moving.

The script of "Dream" tends to break down into three parts that directors have trouble reconciling: the lovers' story, in which mismatched couples run off to the woods and end up, thanks to fairy spells, getting matched; the menials and their production of "Pyramus and Thisbe"; and the quarrel between the fairy king, Oberon, and his queen, Titania, which causes him to have her fall in love with one of the menials, on whom he's clapped an ass's head.

It should be said right off that you'd be lucky in this lifetime to see the menials played any better. Not only are they led by Floyd King as, of course, a wonderful Bottom, but each one of them emerges as a comic character in his own right.

As Robert Starveling, Emery Battis is adorably uncertain and befuddled, the kind of fellow who finds lighting a candle a bit of a technological challenge. Eric Hoffmann's Snug makes up for his absence of much brain with a tremendous (though not always appropriate) gung-ho attitude.

Cameron Folmar's Flute plays his role of Lion with sweet earnestness, anxious not to affright any overly nervous ladies in the audience. As Peter Quince, the director of these well-meaning amateur thespians, David Sabin is gentle, diplomatic and patient, taking in stride sudden supernatural occurrences with the same aplomb with which he handles his actors' little tics of temperament.

And Ralph Cosham turns Snout, who wants the role of Pyramus but ends up stuck in a stupid costume playing the wall, into a full-blown satirical sketch of envy and sulkiness. Cosham's comic technique is quite delicate, and when he and the equally nuanced and fastidious King are working together the result is ethereally funny.

In one of Calarco's emendations, King's hectic, lovable Bottom appears at the play's beginning as a tailor working on a wedding dress. This is for Hermia (feisty Tricia Paoluccio), who is betrothed to Demetrius (snobbish Erik Sorensen) though she really loves Lysander (bumpkinish Gregory Wooddell). Demetrius is in turn loved by Helena (go-for-broke comedian Anna Cody).

Departing from Shakespeare's straightforward presentation, Calarco has poor Hermia fall asleep and start dreaming what we know as the play--the fairy court, the confusion in the forest, the menials' presentation. The conceit is startling but feels absolutely right as the gray walls of Hermia's palace fall away, and she is escorted by Puck (impish Blair Singer) into a skewed world where the family's chandelier lies on the ground like the skeleton of a beached sea monster and the pretty plasterwork walls tip toward the ground like sliding pieces of wedding cake. (This amazing set is by Michael Fagin.) The audience is set up for the play as filtered through "Alice in Wonderland" or "The Nutcracker"--a maiden's dream.

It's a breathtaking idea and maybe Calarco ran out of artistic wind trying to sustain it, because he drops the whole notion almost immediately. Far from representing Hermia's unconscious fears and longings, the fairies, as costumed by Helen Q. Huang, are a Vegasy crowd trailing scarves and sporting skintight silk underwear/bathing suits, a glittery, show biz idea of sexiness.

What with the capering, writhing fairies and the stripped-to-their-underwear lovers, there's a fair amount of skin onstage, and for those who find skin alone a turn-on the evening may be pretty hot. But there's nothing very erotic here--nothing sensual or mysterious or threatening. Partners jump at and on each other like enthusiastic children, too hyped up for the languor of seduction.

To have the ending he wants--somewhat confusingly, Bottom wakes up out of the dream we saw Hermia fall into--Calarco has moved the menials' performance of their play from the end of "Dream" to the middle. And, marvelously funny as it is, the sequence simply stops the play dead, interrupting the headlong narrative of the flight of the lovers with an interlude whose charm doesn't disguise the fact that, plotwise, nothing is really happening (no doubt this is why Shakespeare put it at the end).

Bottom gains his ass's head and goes off with the fairy queen Titania (handsome Valerie Leonard, who also plays Hermia's mother), and the play is ready to start up again. But it pauses once more while Calarco stages a sort of dream-ballet in which the fairies, stimulated by their naked king Oberon (Andrew Long, sardonic of mien and worth seeing unclothed), go into a choreographed sexual frenzy that includes splashing around in some onstage pools of water. (On the upside, Jon Magnussen's music, scored primarily for steel drum, is delightful.)

Then we get to the scene with the bewitched lovers: Enchanted by Oberon, Demetrius now loves Helena (but so does Lysander, mistakenly enchanted by Puck), who suspects a plot while poor abandoned Hermia fumes. The actors start the scene at the top of their energy and have nowhere to go, so the sequence drags on and on and on, with people crying and yelling at one another and rushing about.

At this point, the production breaks down entirely and never gets running again. It just lies there, like that gigantic fallen chandelier, a beautiful wreck.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, by William Shakespeare. Adapted and directed by Joe Calarco. Lights, Daniel MacLean Wagner; choreography, Karma Camp; sound, Brian D. Keating. With Erin Cottrell, Benjamin Hundley and Loren Dean Sands-Ramshaw. At the Shakespeare Theatre through Jan. 2. Call 202-547-1122.

CAPTION: Floyd King as Bottom in the fractured fairy tale "Midsummer Night's Dream."

CAPTION: Gregory Wooddell, Erik Sorensen and Anna Cody, foreground, with Blair Singer and Andrew Long, in Shakespeare Theatre's reworked "Midsummer Night's Dream."