Friday May 14, 1999
Starring everyone from Michelle Pfeiffer and Calista Flockhart to Kevin Kline and Stanley Tucci, "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream" is presenting itself as "a 400-year-old whimsical romantic comedy as it's never been seen before." In other words, this is a chance to see Shakespeare with mud wrestling, something the Bard surely would have put in if only he'd thought of it himself.
As written and directed by Michael Hoffman ("One Fine Day," "Restoration"), "Midsummer" tries to be as many things to as many people as possible. It sticks close to Shakespeare's language and the original plot while making liberal use of movie and TV stars and tossing in over-insistent moments of slapstick farce to entertain those whose tastes run more toward "Ace Ventura."
If there is a model for how to do this kind of modernized yet traditional production well, it's Kenneth Branagh's excellent 1993 "Much Ado About Nothing," which possessed an energy, brio and high spirits that this production does not match. There's nothing wrong with what this frantic "Midsummer" is attempting, but in trying too hard to be funny, it ends up being almost no fun at all.
What's left of the fun quotient is largely the result of Kline, a prince among modern farceurs, who plays Nick Bottom, the hammiest of nonprofessional actors. One of "Midsummer's" subplots involves an extremely amateur production of a mock-tragedy called "The Most Lamentable Comedy, and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby"; Kline's portrayal of the lovelorn Pyramus, though it comes too late in the film to make a major difference, is the closest thing to genuine comedy on offer.
Though the original play is nominally set in ancient Athens, Hoffman's version is changed to a Tuscan hill town named Mt. Athena, which gives the film the kind of lush setting "Much Ado" benefited from and allows for a key plot element concerning characters who wear "Athenian dress."
The time is also updated, to the turn of the century and its craze for bicycles. These machines figure overly much in the film's cumbersome slapstick but fondly recall A.J. Antoon's landmark 1972 New York Shakespeare Festival production of "Much Ado About Nothing," set in a similar time period and broadcast with great success on CBS.
Theseus (the protean David Strathairn), duke of Mt. Athena, is about to be married to the lovely Hippolyta (a barely visible Sophie Marceau). His final and least appealing prenuptial duty is an audience with an angry father named Egeus (Bernard Hill, last seen captaining the sinking "Titanic").
Egeus wants daughter Hermia (Anna Friel) to marry Demetrius (Christian Bale), but she is intent on wedding Lysander (Dominic West). Complicating things further, Hermia's close friend Helena (Flockhart, TV's "Ally McBeal") is mad about indifferent Demetrius.
If this sounds initially confusing, it may well be to those unfamiliar with the play, but things do get clearer as these four young people end up headed for a nearby wood. Also retiring there is the theatrical troupe that includes Bottom, its members intent on rehearsing "Pyramus and Thisby" and then putting it on for the duke and perhaps getting some financial reward on his wedding day.
This turns out to be not just any wood but the home of a legion of fairies ruled by Titania and Oberon (Pfeiffer and Rupert Everett, an appropriately regal pair). On this of all nights, however, the king and queen are having a tiff, and when Oberon enlists Tucci as the playful Puck to administer a powerful love potion, all kinds of unforeseen nonsense takes place.
Shakespeare's play, the source of celebrated lines like "The path of true love never did run smooth" and "Lord, what fools these mortals be," is a glistening examination of the interlinked foolishness and magic of romantic love, but though the language remains the same on film, the essence of the play seems to have eluded this production.
A good chunk of the problem is that the performers playing the two pairs of Athenian lovers are too blandly undifferentiated to hold our interest during the increasingly tedious confusion that unfolds in the forest: They look and act alike even before they start rolling in the mud.
The smooth Kline, who as the hapless Bottom ends up with an ass-like head and a weakness for braying his lines, fares better. When he and his ragtag troupe, including Bill Irwin as Tom Snout and Gregory Jbara as Snug the joiner, work up their peculiar "Pyramus," that is something to smile at.
This "Midsummer Night's" is handsomely outfitted visually and has the advantage of both Felix Mendelssohn's lush music and chunks of classic Italian opera. Though the actors have no major problems handling the language, the whole venture is listless when it should be sparkling. Shakespeare, even with mud wrestling, needn't be quite so much of a slog.
William Shakespeares, 1999. PG-13, for sensuality and nudity. A Midsummer Night's Dream'