The fairies are always trouble.

Any time a production or film of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" is announced, a single worrying thought may shoot into the regular theatergoer's mind: "I hope the fairies aren't embarrassing." Vain hope. I'm trying to think of a production I've seen where they weren't embarrassing--that is to say, where they didn't look so silly that their part of the play became about . . . well, about how silly the actors playing the fairies looked.

A movie of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" made in this golden era of technology might be expected to use new tools and perhaps solve the problem. But no. In the current film version they spend some of their time buzzing around as tiny bits of light, an image that goes all the way back to 1903 with Tinker Bell in the play "Peter Pan." But Tink is a nonspeaking role, and Puck and company are quite the opposite--so we finally have to see them in the flesh.

The film's fairies certainly aren't the worst I've ever seen. As Puck, Stanley Tucci has been modeled on Pan and gets to sport bitty horns. He carries this off, and carries the role off, with genial whimsy. Tucci is a very relaxed, grounded actor when he wants to be--and though his Puck has an urban wise-guy air that's a bit at odds with the role, at least he's not leaping around trying to act like a sprite.

The other male fairies are cast in the same satyr/faun mode, but the actresses are decked out in enough gauze and sequins and glitter for a Christmas display window at Macy's. They're meant to be sexy, even earthy, but they sport precious little wire-and-gauze wings or wear tall, two-handled Grecian-style pots on their heads.

In Shakespeare's day, city dwellers were less likely to believe in fairies than country people were--somewhat like the way it is with aliens today. But, as with aliens today, everyone knew the folklore, what fairies were supposed to be. And they weren't supposed to be very nice. No one is quite sure of the origins of fairy belief, but many scholars speculate that the spirits were what was left of the old pre-Christian gods. The average person who thought they were real would have been extremely disinclined to run into one. A fairy was more likely to curse you or kill you or spirit you away for a lover or servant than it was to bestow any kindly gifts.

This concept of fairies was eclipsed in the 18th and early 19th centuries by literary fairy tales: Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, Tom Thumb. But it survived in folk tales and made its way back into educated consciousness in 1812 in the grim work of the Brothers Grimm, whose collection of "household tales" was rife with cruelty, death, mutilation and blood. Though their literary fairy tales weren't all sweetness and light, their style was more refined than that of folk tales, more self-conscious and "artistic."

Interestingly enough, the Victorians, whom we smugly think of as hysterically addicted to the nice and the safe, made a stab at combining the two types. Not so much in stories (though the slightly sinister flowers and animals in the "Alice" books have the old folkloric ambiguity) as in more visual arts like theater and painting. Fairies were linked with the "curiosities" and "monsters" being discovered by natural scientists, with P.T. Barnum's exhibits of freaks, with ghosts and witches' Sabbaths.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fairies were associated with the dead. A series of photographs of mysterious little people taken by two young girls in 1917 were proclaimed genuine by spiritualists like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and deemed--though the logical leap is hard to follow--proof of an afterlife. (The so-called "Cottingley Fairies" have since been exposed as a hoax.)

This dark tone permeates Victorian fairy paintings, which despite their twee images are rather disturbing. The visitation of fairies is associated in one artist's work with drug-taking (the opiate-based laudanum was a staple of society, the Tylenol of its era), in which the dreamer (the painter himself) is visited by deformities worthy of the medieval demon-painter Hieronymus Bosch. In another's, the grotesque, near-transparent fairies are clearly associated with sexual violation. One of the greatest paintings ever done by a psychotic is the claustrophobic, detail-crammed, peculiarly unsettling "The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke" by Richard Dadd, a young man who was confined to Broadmoor Asylum after cutting his father's throat in a carriage.

Even the big canvases based on Shakespeare's play, with their gorgeous, Grecian-clad fairies and little winged sprites, are, upon closer examination, not as benign as they seem. A tiny male fairy may be literally butt-naked. An impish group may be torturing an owl. Minute naked creatures roll lasciviously in each other's arms.

The fairies were domesticated by the great children's book illustrators like Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac--they became romantic and ethereal. And they were made cute by James Barrie in "Peter Pan" (though both book and play have odd undercurrents). But the real damage was done by Walt Disney, from the ever-so-precious light-encircled beings in "Fantasia" to the pretty-pretty blond Blue Fairy in "Pinocchio" to the stout, jolly fairy godmothers in "Cinderella" and "Sleeping Beauty." Disney could do horror (think of "A Night on Bald Mountain" in "Fantasia") but cheerful supernaturalism was beyond him--he just produced goo.

Not that he was out of step with his era. The overproduced 19th-century style of staging was faltering on its last legs when Disney started as an animator, and it ran to spectacles that might be called Vegasy if they had had any sex in them. The celebrated German director Max Reinhardt directed a film of "Dream" in the '30s with James Cagney as Bottom (not, in and of itself, such a bad idea) and lots of female fairies draped in clinging, shimmery gossamer.

As far as I know, Peter Hall first broke with the gauze-and-glitter tradition in the late '60s. His version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream," with Ian Richardson as the fairy king Oberon and Judi Dench as Titania, was filmed in a forest, and the fairies were muddy and near-naked, with bits of weed and dirt in their hair. I haven't seen the film in 30 years, but I remember the concept working pretty well, partly because it was bold and new.

It's not bold and new anymore, but directors and designers keep using it. In his famous, stylized production of the '70s, Peter Brook clad his fairies in simple robes (and put them on trapezes), but though much admired it was not influential. The notion of sexy earth spirits ruled. In the recent Royal Shakespeare Company production here--the one with all the giant umbrellas--a press release trumpeted that the fairies would be daringly earthy and sexual, as if it were a brave new idea instead of a notion that had been around for decades. Puck, costumed as a randy faun, looked dismayingly like a man who for some inexplicable reason was wearing a fur ball around his hips.

In an Arena Stage production in 1981, the director had the bright idea of making the fairies water spirits. There was a pool onstage and, yep, the fairies dived into and popped out of it. This gave the play an atmosphere of suspense it usually lacks, as the audience wondered with each dive and splash whether the fairy might hit her head and drown.

But at least that production had Avery Brooks and Kathleen Turner in body stockings as Oberon and Titania--all the erotic charge you could want and then some. The most painful "Dreams" to sit through are the ones where the actors playing the fairies try to be sexy and fail. This was the case in Kenneth Branagh's misbegotten 1990 production, in which the fairies wore black leather and showed lots of skin and crawled around the stage sticking their tongues out and in. A great deal of pale, undermuscled English flesh was on display, and the whole experience was about as sexy as a dead fish.

The new film wants to combine the visions of Reinhardt and Hall: Its fairies are meant to be lushly costumed and tantalizingly sexual, but instead they fulfill the tradition by looking faintly ridiculous. They're absurd in a stately sort of way--you can't quite laugh, just as you can't quite laugh at the overdone costumes in opera. (In fact, the whole movie, with its soundtrack by Verdi, looks like an opera.) Shakespeare's dialogue is not cute, not adorable, not "pretty," not ludicrous. Nor, though bawdy, is it primitive and folk-taleish. And since Peter Brook, it hasn't found a director or designer up to it.

CAPTION: Sexy spirits: Barry Lynch, left, as Puck and Ann Hasson as First Fairy in the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Dream" that visited the Kennedy Center.

CAPTION: On the horns of a dilemma: Stanley Tucci, looking the part as Puck in the recently released film version of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."