Though theatergoers and Shakespeare fans may know the title The Merry Wives of Windsor, few of them have probably seen a live performance of it. The comedy was last produced on Broadway in 1938, and in the past 40 years it has had only two major New York stagings (both at Central Park's Delacorte Theater). True, it's not one of the Bard's great works, but when directed and performed as well as the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey has done in its current production (its last was in 2005), this underappreciated play comes hilariously to life with enough riotous humor and high jinks to make us wonder where it's been all this time.
Queen Elizabeth, so the dubious story goes, having been delighted by the character of Sir John Falstaff in part 1 of Henry IV, demanded that Shakespeare write a play about Falstaff in love. Legend has it that ol' Bill put aside part 2 of Henry IV to hastily pen Merry Wives, doing so in about 14 days. Whether any of this is true, director Bonnie J. Monte has taken the text, dirty dish rags and all, and rung every last drop of comedy from the language — no small feat, what with all those obscure puns and contrived plot twists. Her achievement is in showing us just how funny this play really is.
The plot is indeed twisty, revolving as it does around several romantic and quasi-romantic intrigues of Windsor's middle-class denizens (no kings, queens, or nobles here). In brief, the young Anne Page (Rachel Felstein) is the most sought-after maiden in town. The Welsh pastor Sir Hugh Evans (Ames Adamson) thinks that the dim-witted dolt Slender (Jonathan Finnegan) should marry that "pretty virginity." But the fiery-tempered Frenchman Doctor Caius (Jon Barker) is madly in love with her, and he's ready to duel with Evans for having the audacity to recommend Slender. Problem is, Anne's heart already belongs to the young gentleman Fenton (James Costello), who Anne's rich father, George Page (Joey Collins), wrongly thinks is after only money.
The wily, heavyset, sack-swilling knight Sir John Falstaff (David Andrew Macdonald), however, is after money. He decides to write love letters to Anne's mother, Mistress Margaret Page (Saluda Camp), and to her friend Mistress Alice Ford (Caralyn Kozlowski) in hopes of seducing them and gaining access to their (or rather, to their husbands') purse strings. "They shall be my East and West Indies," he says confidently, "and I will trade to them both." These honest, merry wives, however, see through Falstaff's plan, and they'll have none of it. So they decide to devise their own plot to get revenge on him. Thrown into this confusing stew is Alice's jealous husband, Frank Ford (Matt Sullivan), who, when he learns of Falstaff's alleged affair with his wife, will stop at nothing to catch them in the act. What comes of Frank Ford's jealousy, whom Anne Page ends up with, and what happens to Falstaff, are the play's three story lines that are all resolved at the end of three fast-paced hours.
Since Merry Wives is not as well known as other Shakespeare plays, to tell more would spoil the little surprises that it delivers along the way. With its playful commentaries on sexual politics and middle-class mores, the comedy often has the flavor of a TV sitcom. This production's real power to delight, however, comes from the outstanding performances of the 20-member cast, all attired in Yao Chen's colorful, gorgeously designed Elizabethan-inspired costumes. Macdonald knows how to deliver Falstaff's lines to get big laughs, though one might imagine the drunken knight as stouter, and perhaps not quite as handsome. It's hard to imagine Mistresses Page and Ford not at least giving him a second look. But Kozlowski's Alice Ford does get a good look at the ceiling in a ridiculously funny bit of stage business in which she falls backward into a large basket of dirty laundry.
Deserving special mention are Adamson, whose subtle gestures charmingly amplify the play's racy language, and the irrepressible Barker, whose over-the-top French accent and divinely inspired comic timing make him the show's highlight. Kristie Dale Sanders also shines with understated humor as the flask-toting Mistress Quickly. But even the smaller roles receive fine performances, such as Raphael Nash Thompson as the gregarious Host and the spritely Felix Mayes as John Rugby and Robin. No less attention should be given to the design team. Tony Galaska's beautiful lighting, with his detailed attention to sunshine and shadow, and Monte's period-appropriate music take this production to another level. These folks know how to do Shakespeare.
Of course, as is the case with most of the Bard's works, not all the jokes land. Merry Wives contains lots of bawdy wordplay and cultural references that don't always resonate with modern audiences the way they likely did with Elizabethan crowds. Monte has made few, if any, significant alterations to the text and chosen to let the actors get the meaning across through performance. The result is perhaps one of the most accomplished, satisfying productions of Merry Wives to hit the stage in a long time. If you miss this one, you might not see one better. And that's, as Mistress Quickly says, "the short and the long of it."
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