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'Twere not for Kevin Kline, this "Dream" 'twould be a snore.

A "Midsummer" Folly

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With a cast that reads like "Entertainment Tonight's" A-List, "William Shakespeare's A Midsummer's Night Dream" is advertising itself as a four-centuries-old "whimsical romantic comedy as it's never been seen before." That's Hollywood-moviespeak for "yes, there's mud wrestling." I kid you not, this adaptation of the Bard's most delightful star-crossed comedy does contain mud wrestling. Not that Shakespeare would mind. In fact, had he known of such earthy diversions, I believe he would not have hesitated to toss such a scene in.

What bothers me about this updated adaptation and its scenic change of venue is the lack of charm.

Oh, there's faerie dust aplenty; not to mention gauzy-garbed sprites and tons of long, golden tresses which demurely — and strategically — remain in place. As written and directed by Michael Hoffman ("One Fine Day," "Restoration"), this "Dream" tries too hard to please. While it hews closely to Shakespeare's language and plot, it also tosses in overly contrived moments of slapstick. Hoffman's intentions no doubt were to appeal to the literate as well as the illiterate. But in trying so hard to be funny, this "Dream" ends up being almost no fun at all.

The fact that Hoffman has moved the setting from ancient Athens to a turn-of-the-century Tuscan hillside calls to mind Kenneth Branagh's wonderful 1993 adaptation of "Much Ado About Nothing." Alas, Hoffman may have followed Branagh's model for this sort of modern-yet-traditional adaptation, but this production never quite engages.

Were it not for the marvelous comic timing of Kevin Kline, who plays Nick Bottom, this "Dream" would be a surreal nightmare. As the hammiest of the actors in Shakespeare's trademark play-within-a-play structure, Kline's portrayal of the lovelorn Pyramus is genuinely funny. Yet, as the fates would have it, his performance-within-a-performance comes too late in the film to save it.

For those who do not remember even the slightest bit of the plot, here's a quick rundown. On the eve of his wedding to the lovely Hippolyta (an almost invisible Sophie Marceau), Duke Theseus (an uncomfortable David Strathairn) must deal with an angry father. He wants his daughter Hermia (Anna Friel) to marry Demetrius (Christian Bale), but she is intent on marrying her true love Lysander (Dominic West). Adding to the problem is Helena ("Ally McBeal's" Calista Flockhart), Hermia's best friend and the doggedly determined pursuer of Demetrius.

In hot pursuit of their unrequited and requited loves, all four young people repair to nearby woods to hatch plots to escape and ensnare the objects of their affections. But in a twist only the Bard could design, the woods also are playing host to a village theatrical troupe preparing an entertainment for the Duke's wedding. They call their amateur production "The Most Lamentable Comedy and Cruel Death of Pyramus and Thisby." Yet wait, they are not alone, either. For on this very night, fairy King Oberon (Rupert Everett) and Queen Titania (a luminous Michelle Pfeiffer) are having a tiff.

Calling upon his trusty sprite Puck (Stanley Tucci), Oberon hatches a plot to administer a love potion to Titania which has her fall in love with the next person she sees. Being in an expansive mood, Oberon also tells Puck to give the potion to Demetrius so he will love Helena as much as she loves him. But the course of true romance does not run smooth, and Puck gives the potion to Lysander. And he, of course, first spies Helena.

Queen Titania fares little better, becoming enamored of Kline's Bottom, who now resembles a big-eared, hairy ass.

Hoffman may have cut and snipped Shakespeare's lengthy comedy and musically added chunks of famous Italian operas and Mendelssohn's music, but his movie lacks brio. The blame falls on the shoulders of his actors. Although Flockhart proves adept at more than TV, Bale, West, Strathairn and Marceau seem bland copies of actors.

This "Dream" is visually handsome but tiring. Hoffman may have gotten Shakespeare's point, but he missed the Bard's romantic

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