"THERE IS a magic to theater, I believe, that comes from fundamental storytelling," says director Lee Mikeska Gardner.

That faith in story lies at the heart of Gardner's rollicking, purposefully rough-edged and human-scale take on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer's Night Dream."

The audience walks in to find actors in street clothes and fellow theatergoers milling about the Clark Street Playhouse stage, bare except for a prop table, a low central platform and two rows of seats. "So many times, the production values, the design, the formality become a barrier to the language and the story," Gardner explains. "I knew that I just wanted to mix it up and get the audience involved and make it very transparent."

Gardner's "Dream" is brought to life by a merry band of eight actors, all playing multiple roles throughout the evening. When not directly involved in the action, they can be seen discreetly (and sometimes not so discreetly) changing costume pieces or gathering up their props. In a few instances, a performer must scramble to portray two characters within the same scene, lending the whole enterprise a cheerful kind of informality.

By stripping away the artifices of theater, Gardner handed her actors a challenge. "After the first week [of rehearsal], I said: 'Okay you guys, this is a production about you and a ladder,' " she recalls. " 'So grab hold of this language and let's see what we can do with it.' "

"I cast a bunch of people I knew had good 'thinking-on-their-feet' skills, who were going to be capable of thinking outside the Shakespearean box," Gardner says. Still, for several of the cast, this production marked their first brush with the Bard. "Part of Washington Shakespeare Company's mission is to train and showcase emerging artists, and our main vehicle is putting them in classical plays," Gardner says. "I didn't even audition this show, I just handpicked these actors out of the large pool of people I'd like to work with. I was looking specifically for diversity in race and culture and age and male/female. . . . I just wanted every body type I could get up there."

The emphasis on diversity in the cast is an extension of Gardner's desire to break down the wall between actor and audience and present Shakespeare's story of love and magic as a kind of secular holiday gift, reflecting the season's aspirations to goodwill among men. "The best stories are universal," she says. "They cut across racial and gender and cultural lines. And I wanted the show to relate to an audience as much as possible."

Ian Armstrong, left, and Nick Jackson in Washington Shakespeare Theater's "A Midsummer Night's Dream."