It's natural enough--a full-blown, new-age interpretation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. But while the Denver Center Theatre Company's rendering explores the fantastic quality of dreams, building a fabulous world full of rich, bright magic, it sometimes palls--like having to listen to a fundamentalist sermon when you hold different ideas about religion. But irritation with prancing fairies caressing crystals doesn't last long. The whole point of this "Dream" is the charmed presence of the excellent fairy King and Queen.

Ancient Greece. King Theseus is about to marry the woman he has just conquered, but Hippolyta is no pushover. In comes an angry father (Egeus) who demands that the king enforce the law and either make his daughter Hermia (Dee Hennigan) marry the man of his choice, Demetrius, or be put to death or enter a nunnery (same difference).

But Hermia loves Lysander. It's Hermia's best friend, Helena (Birgitta De Pree), who loves Demetrius. Hermia and Lysander decide to run away together. Hermia confides in Helena, who betrays her to Demetrius (hoping for some crumb of affection from him). So Hermia and Lysander run into the woods, with Demetrius in chase and Helena in chase behind him. Meanwhile, Titania and Oberon fight over a little changeling child Titania is rearing. Oberon is jealous--he demands the boy. When Titania refuses, Oberon plans to humiliate her by magic--making her fall in love with some loathsome creature. And who should enter the woods but the foolish Nick Bottom come to practice his part in the workmen's production of "The Tale of Pyramus and Thisbe." The Pan-like fairy Puck puts an ass's head on Bottom and anoints Titania's eyes with love juice. She falls madly in love.

But Puck is something of a bungler as well as a mischief maker, and he causes both Demetrius and Lysander to fall in love with Helena--who thinks she is being mocked. Hermia, of course, is scorned. What a mess. The story is so complicated and so hilarious in its complications that the players have a variety of choices in visualizing them. Director Laird Williamson gives his actors pratfalls and physical business ad infinitum--almost all of it bright and witty in its own right. He digs out unexpected nuances in the dialogue, fitting energetic action to the sometimes double and triple meanings of the words. Various companies seem to choose sections of the play to emphasize. Kenneth Branagh's Renaissance Theatre Company version was memorable for Branagh's Peter Quince (director of the workmen), as well as for Bottom and the other workmen who perform at the marriage feast of Theseus and Hippolyta. What is most impressive about DCTC's depiction is the preternatural intimacy and sexual tension between Titania and Oberon as they spar. Sean Hennigan's Bottom is inventive, amusing and boisterously alive. He draws the viewer's eye and loyalty whenever he is on stage. But it is Titania and Oberon who linger on as the essence of the production long after you leave the theater.

Even Williamson's vision of the relationship between Theseus and Hippolyta reinforces the tensions between Titania and Oberon: He has the same actors play both sets of royalty. John Hutton is a gentle, loving Theseus and a sexy, tyrannical Oberon. Jacqueline Antaramian gives Hippolyta the ferocious dignity of a conquered Amazon, then invests Titania with a mysterious force that quite matches Oberon's. Their jealousies seem pettier than human jealousies, their marital trials even more absurd. But maybe that's the point. What matters in the end is the loving relationship between them--all pettiness put aside in blessing the marriage of Theseus and Hippolyta.

The play's too long. If all the fairy dances (or most of them) had been eliminated, it would have helped. The dancing is too precious, and the new-age rituals banal in the extreme. Then, too, Williamson has not milked the buffoonery of the craftsmen's scenes enough. Considering what he accomplishes with the silly young lovers, it's an odd hole in the direction. Costumes and set are spectacular, exaggerated and intriguing. It's a good night in the theater. Puck (David Medina) is perfect. Pleasant dreams.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, through February 26 at the Denver Center Theatre Company, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 13th and Curtis, 893-4100.


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