By Lisa Schwarzbaum
May 14, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

When a movie director makes a point of respectfully citing the author in the title of an adapted literary classic — William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein — you can be sure that director has a not-so-modest Artistic Vision that involves swallowing the author whole. Michael Hoffman’s fanciful vision of a ”fat little Puck riding through the Tuscan countryside on the back of a turtle” was his inspiration for William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Apparently, such was the force of his fantasy that Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Calista Flockhart, Rupert Everett, Stanley Tucci, Christian Bale, Anna Friel, David Strathairn, and Sophie Marceau all signed on for another bash at the Bard.

The result is a Dream shimmering with stars (the celebrity kind as well as those in a gauzy, glitter-dusted production designed by Luciana Arrighi), and cluttered nearly unto claustrophobia with stuff and conflicting acting styles; this brush with Shakespeare is a strenuous comedy that stalls in the enchanted forest. Squabbling lovers rattle through the Italian landscape on newfangled Butch Cassidy bicycles. Helena (Flockhart) stomps around in an Ally McBealish snit of love for Demetrius (Bale). Oberon (Everett) and his prankster messenger Puck (Tucci) share arch jokes at fool mortals’ expense. Fairy queen Titania (Pfeiffer) is absolutely ravishing — especially when she is under a love spell, wooing the weaver-turned-spellbound ass Bottom (Kline) — but she is as coolly removed from the goings-on as the moon. Throughout, chunks of Mendelssohn’s famous ”Midsummer Night” music clash with random hunks of famous Italian operas.

The Bard’s sublime play, of course, can accommodate just about anything thrown at it. (Previous film adaptations include the classic 1935 Hollywood production, with James Cagney as Bottom, and the 1968 Royal Shakespeare Company’s version starring — who else — Judi Dench.) But this Dream, so lushly designed, expensively cast, and permissively underdisciplined by the expert director of One Fine Day, Restoration, and Soapdish, fractures and dissolves before our eyes.

And within this void, the busy madcappery of the local laborers — who, as an amateur theater troupe, rehearse ”Pyramus and Thisbe” to perform for the wedding of Theseus (Strathairn) and Hippolyta (Marceau) — fills all too much space. These purveyors of comic relief have always been an acquired taste, the Benny Hills of Shakespearean comedy. They’re also inside-jokesters, satirizing theater life: No wonder actors are so keen to take the roles. This clutch of thespians playing thespians — Roger Rees, Max Wright, Gregory Jbara, Bill Irwin, Sam Rockwell, and Kline — do their character shtick, then respectfully give Kline plenty of room to bite into one of the greatest tragicomic roles in the Shakespearean repertory. This he does, and never is he more tender than when he has been transformed back from magic ass-hood and becomes merely a simple man who has briefly been loved by a queen. It’s a poignant moment, and it vanishes like a vivid dream that eludes memory upon waking. C+