Rated PG-13 - Running time: 1:56 - Released 5/14/99

Whene'er the players take the stage, in parts forsaken thro' the age, And put to rest our woes and cares, by showing us their actors' wares; When William Shakespeare's words doth rise, and images fill ears and eyes; One cannot doubt, 'twill please the host, to taste the wares this film doth boast.

Sorry, couldn't resist.

It is a refreshing change, amid the summer blockbusters, teen romances, and bullet-whizzing pablum, to see a film with true character. Michael Hoffman's adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream is a delightful way to spend the summer solstice evening, or any other, for that matter. Beautiful scenery and costume design and a cast of remarkably talented actors make this film one of the best I've seen yet this year.

The familiar plot of this classic is put into motion in an updated setting: Monte Athena, Italy, in the late 19th century. While one grows weary of Shakespearean adaptations set in the present, where we try to incorporate skateboarding and the Internet into Love's Labour's Lost, it is altogether different to have a whimsical fairy tale like A Midsummer Night's Dream set in recent history, but not too recent. The styles and pastimes of 100 years ago seem somehow a little more fitting with the Bard's 16th century language.

The human characters whom we follow most closely are a quartet of star-crossed lovers: Helena (Ally McBeal's Calista Flockhart) loves Demetrius (Christian Bale); Demetrius loves Hermia (Anna Friel); Hermia loves Lysander (Dominic West). Lysander loves her back, but that doesn't help Demetrius, who has already obtained permission from Hermia's father to marry her, and therefore claims her as his own. But while they are futzing around, complaining about not being able to love the one they want, there is another love being thwarted. Fairy king Oberon (Rupert Everett) and his queen Titania (Michelle Pfeiffer), are in the middle of a lovers' quarrel. He enlists the aid of a spunky sprite named Puck (Stanley Tucci) to anoint her eyes with the dew from a magical flower while she is sleeping, so when she awakes she will fall in love with the first living thing she sees.

Trouble is, Puck gets a little happy with the flower juice, and he starts anointing eyes all over the place. Soon Lysander and Demetrius both love Helena, both claiming to have no further interest in Hermia. After a memorable mud-wrestling scene, the four lovers go off in different directions, utterly confused by each other's behavior. Meanwhile, Nick Bottom (Kevin Kline), a conceited actor planning to star in a production for the Duke and Duchess, gets a little of the fairy dust, too. After gazing into a mirror, he is all the more smitten with himself, and as Titania awakes to behold him, she can't help but share his opinion. Even though he has developed several donkey-esque qualities in the meantime.

The acting in this film is superb. The characters are well-defined and endearing. Flockhart is delightfully spirited as the ever-perplexed Helena. Pfeiffer is beauty personified, looking 15 years younger than she did in The Deep End Of The Ocean. Tucci and Kline are exceptionally fun. The final "play within a play," a production of Shakespeare's own Pyramus And Thisbe featuring Bottom's hysterical overacting, is as enjoyable as the one at the end of Shakespeare In Love. Gabriella Pescucci's costume design will surely get an Oscar nomination this year — she already has one statuette for The Age Of Innocence (1993). Her designs are beautiful and colorful, and so are the settings by production designer Luciana Arrighi. Oliver Stapleton's cinema and Simon Boswell's original music also deserve note; they add importantly to the overall enjoyment of this adaptation of one of Shakespeare's most popular comedies. *****

Copyright 1999 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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