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Saturday, April 1, 2000

'A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM'

Shakespeare too hot for the 17th century


"A Midsummer Night's Dream" should be retitled "A Casting Agent's Wet Dream." When you have Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett, David Strathairn, Kevin Kline, Sophie Marceau, Calista Flockhart and Stanley Tucci in one movie, sometimes all together in a single scene, it's all you can do not to keel over from the 5,000 collective kilowatts of glamour.

You start to get suspicious: Were these people abducted by aliens, then hypnotized into accepting? But an actor once told me that Shakespeare is the summit of every acting career, even if it's Michelle Pfeiffer's.

Directed by Michael Hoffman ("One Fine Day"), "Midsummer" is about much fun and shameless frivolity, which is probably what Shakespeare intended when he wrote the play in 1595. It has everything: jealousy, nudity, sex, intrigue, sodomy and hallucinations induced by herbal drugs. My guess is that he was trying to make a brat pack thing, but was hindered by the lack of senior proms.

No matter. He must have known that "Midsummer" would become the definitive romantic comedy, to inspire generations of filmmakers again and again.

Hoffman is careful to preserve the esprit of the original play, but modifies the setting for the modern audience, who are known to enjoy a period movie only if that period is as close to the present as possible. Thus the backdrop is 19th-century Tuscany (instead of ancient Greece), where people ride bicycles and wear frocks that could pass as a Jean Paul Gaultier collection. Hairstyles are less elaborate, the language is less flowery and things are decidedly more casual. The feeling overall is similar to a tourist visit to Tuscany: a hint of a Coke machine lurking somewhere among the topiary of an old Italian garden.

Not to say that it dispels the dreaminess. All the vending machines in the world couldn't ruin the sight of very beautiful people in very beautiful wardrobes, frolicking in a forest awash with summer colors. To give you an idea of who's who: Everett is Oberon, King of Fairies (get it?), Pfeiffer is Titania, his Queen. Kline is the tailor Nick Bottom, later transformed into a donkey. Tucci carouses about as a hairy and impish Puck. Strathairn is the Duke Theseus and Marceau plays Hippolyta, his bride-to-be. Christian Bale is the fickle and egotistical Demitrius, Anna Friel is Hermia, his love object. Dominic West plays Lysander, and Calista Flockhart (of the TV series "Ally McBeal") is Helena, relentless pursuer of the man she loves.

They all take to the woods on a midsummer's eve, each from different motives but coming out in the end charged with an eroticism (a gift from the fairies) that sweeps them away to respective weddings and bed chambers -- the understanding is that everyone must wait for a big church wedding before enjoying the fruits of matrimony. Even the graying and dignified Duke Theseus mentions repeatedly that he simply can't wait for the momentous occasion while Hippolyta flutters her eyelashes at him in a meaningful way.

Which all goes to show you that Shakespeare was a pretty randy kind of guy and the greatest pop generator of his time. Really, when you think about it, everything he wrote was either comically steamy, tragically steamy or just steamy. "Midsummer," in fact, was deemed too sinful and banned from English theaters throughout the 17th century, and played only in drastically modified versions until the late 1800s. In 1914, it came back in full, unaltered form for the first time in 300 years.

Of the cast, a personal favorite was Calista Flockhart, who has cornered the market on insecure girlishness. There she is, tall and gangly and lugging a heavy bicycle with her skinny arms, moaning about how Demitrius refuses to love her. Far from blaming him for being the sleazebag that he is, she puts it down to her lack of glamour, lack of appeal, lack of breasts. Her soliloquies on this are hilarious, some of the best moments in the movie.

Flockhart is the only one with the complications though -- everyone else sports a suave wherewithal, punctuated by elegant sexual statements whose exact phrasing now escapes me but amounts to: "Geez, I'm getting ants in my pants from all this waiting -- there's still two hours before the sun goes down and I can get this chick where I want her!"

To think that we are made to study this stuff in school. To think that in my high school, they made us study it but got all upset if they saw a couple holding hands, and had to call a PTA meeting to deal with it.

It's not midsummer yet, but this film definitely delivers a premonition of something warm and inviting.

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" opens today at Yurakucho Subaruza.


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