Joe Calarco never saw a version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" he judged to be sexy enough, so when Michael Kahn and the Shakespeare Theatre invited him to direct the play, he gave it a hormonal boost. His "Dream," onstage through Jan. 2, bristles with gorgeous, minimally clad bodies--those of romantically omnivorous fairies and romantically confused mortals.

Calarco liked "the whole idea of the lovers getting down to their underwear," metaphorically "stripping the confines of the world and becoming more in tune with this fantastic natural world that they've fallen into."

Choreographer Karma Camp had to realize much of Calarco's vision, especially in the much-buzzed-about scene that opens Act 2: 6 1/2 minutes during which the naked fairy king Oberon takes a languorous shower (his back to the audience), while his minions subtly delight in their sexuality. "He said to me, 'It's the fairy world and everybody is beautiful and everybody loves everyone else,' " meaning not all couples would be heterosexual, Camp recalled. "We had a great time exploring it, and my dancers never once said to me, 'We're going to do what?' "

Andrew Long, as Oberon, spent most of the rehearsal period doing the shower scene in a swimsuit but finally had to take the plunge. "Eventually, I just got tired of doing it with the suit and I said, 'Let's take it off.' It actually felt correct for the first time, once I did take my suit off. All the mannerisms and gestures that Karma had choreographed for me suddenly found some sort of correct place."

Long, who'll next do the title role in "Coriolanus," with Kahn directing, noted that he and many cast members dropped a few pounds during rehearsals and continue to hit the gym--the results of which audience members can confirm. "I do work out as much as I can," said Long, adding, "certainly the prospect of having such a small costume or [none] at all is a great motivator."

For Calarco, risk seems to be an artistic motivator. The New York-based director didn't win his Helen Hayes Award last season for playing it safe with "Nijinsky's Last Dance" at Signature, and he took a chance off-Broadway in 1998 with his reputation-making "Shakespeare's R&J"--"Romeo and Juliet" as imagined by prep school boys. (He'll soon direct "R&J" at the Folger Theatre, followed by "Side Show" at Signature in the spring.)

But this "Dream" is Calarco's first big show. "I went from four guys to 33 people and a lot of money. It was like culture shock," he said last week. Despite mixed reviews, Calarco reports great artistic satisfaction. "I feel like I poured my body and soul into this one. . . . At the end, I wanted it to be the audience's dream."

Out of Africa

When Oni Faida Lampley was a radical black nationalist student, she spent her junior year in Sierra Leone and kept a journal of her time there. It recounted her surprise that all Africans didn't greet her with open arms as a sister, other types of culture shock, an ill-fated love affair and a nasty bout of malaria.

Years later, when Lampley became a busy actor and writer (her "Mixed Babies" was performed at the Washington Stage Guild a few years ago; she recently acted opposite Patrick Stewart in Arthur Miller's "The Ride Down Mt. Morgan" at New York's Public Theater), it seemed right to try to bring that journal to the stage. Still, she said last week, "I had a kind of embarrassment about the material . . . embarrassment and shame about who I used to be."

Working with dramaturge Lynn M. Thomson, Lampley took several years to overcome that feeling and create her one-woman show, "The Dark Kalamazoo," now in its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company through Dec. 12. The title is a reference to the dismissive way an African described Lampley, who was the only black student in a group sent to Sierra Leone under the auspices of a college in Kalamazoo, Mich.

In the partly fictionalized 90-minute piece, Lampley energetically inhabits the stage as her present and college-age selves, her wise mother and various friends and lovers. Anyone who ever spent a junior year abroad will catch her funny-touching drift. "Kalamazoo," said Lampley, is about self-love. "It's hard to accept who you are . . . and the piece is about her embracing her younger self."

Now, as a wife, mother and breast cancer survivor, Lampley has developed admiration and forgiveness for her younger self: "I think she had a lot of heart and took a lot of chances, and I'm proud of her, that she kept reaching out, no matter what. . . . She was enthusiastic about life."

As for her connection to Africa, she's no longer so insistent on being accepted there. "The Africanness of me is a fact," she said. "It wasn't something I had to go and make true."

Gross-Out Guy

Before performances of "Cannibal Cheerleaders on Crack," Cherry Red Productions Artistic Director Ian Allen or one of his cohorts tosses condoms at the usually twenty-something crowd and says, "If you don't know who we are, we're Washington's only theater company dedicated to smut."

Then the actors get on with Billy Bermingham's play, a John Watersesque farce about the conniving Dr. Finger and characters with names like Julie Cleavage, Caterer-Slut, Miss Agony and Baglady. They squirt all sorts of gunk at themselves and the audience, pretending it's bodily fluids.

"It's fun and it's not Shakespeare, and it's something that's speaking to them," said Allen last week of the way Cherry Red's style suits its audience. It's not what Allen, who's 26, describes as "the geriatric ward that you generally see sitting in the theater. . . . Our crowd comes from a more rock-and-roll audience than a theater audience."

The goings-on in the cramped, cacophonous Metro Cafe on 14th Street at Church Street NW may hark back to the comedies of ancient Greece, but to Allen it's a punk thing. "I'm definitely attracted to the punk culture--their aggression. And they don't give a crap what anybody thinks about them. It's wonderful."

"Cheerleaders" runs through Dec. 17.

Follow Spots

* Two young musical-comedy pros with local connections will appear in "A Christmas Carol: The Musical," opening Nov. 26 in the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York. Kennedy Kanagawa, 14, of Great Falls, will play young Scrooge, and his pal, 12-year-old Marshall Pailet, originally from Potomac, will play Jonathan, a role created for the show.

The boys met while performing with Upbeat Unlimited in Rockville before turning pro. They hung out together during an earlier New York season while Kanagawa appeared in "Falsettoland" and Pailet did "The Sound of Music." Pailet and his family recently moved to New York.

* Monday evening at the Corcoran Gallery, Woolly Mammoth's play-reading series, ForePlay, will feature "Wonder of the World," a new comedy by David Lindsay-Abaire, whose "Fuddy Meers" has just garnered fine reviews off-Broadway. Call 202-639-1770.

* GALA Hispanic Theatre will collect canned food for the needy at three performances of the musical production "Neruda: 2000," a celebration of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Those who contribute will get a $5 discount on their tickets. Call 202-234-7174.