ORLANDO — In a sense, I look at “The Merry Wives of Windsor” as a kind of “kitchen sink” comedy – in other words, one that throws in everything, plus the kitchen sink.
There’s a stunning rapid-fire pace and energy to the Orlando Shakespeare’s Theater’s new production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” — not to mention a virtual catalog of different comedic styles and approaches, from slapstick to impersonations to farce, from physical comedy to satire to wordplay.
As directed by Brian Vaughn, “Merry Wives” evokes everything from 1950s television sit-coms like “I Love Lucy” and “Bewitched,” to the over-the-top zaniness of vaudeville.
Not everything works — some of it is laugh-out-laugh hilarious, and sometimes the approach falls flat and the humor seems forced.
But there’s no question that this play, which runs for three hours – a relatively lengthy endeavor for a nation used to comedy being delivered in quick half-hour segments on television and cable – never drags. And it’s anything but predictable, even if you’ve seen Shakespeare’s play many times before.
In a sense, it is almost as if the director and his very talented cast had made the decision to defy expectations about what a play by William Shakespeare is all about. Yes, Shakespeare’s language can be invigorating to some, and too dense for others.
But what seems to excite both the director and the cast is not reinventing Shakespeare with more familiar and modern styles of comedy, but perhaps to demonstrate that in his day, the Bard eagerly wanted to entertain audiences with his comedies, and could be as zany as any sit-com writer today.
“Merry Wives” was first published in 1602, and features the character Sir John Falstaff, the knight who had been featured in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV” Parts 1 and 2. The play follows Falstaff as he arrives in Windsor, short on money. He decides to court two wealthy married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, in the hope of improving his financial outlook.
Falstaff comes up with the idea of sending the women identical love letters, which he then asks his servants, Pistol and Nym, to deliver.
The servants refuse, so an indignant Falstaff fires them. The comedy builds nicely as the men get their revenge by telling Ford and Page, the two husbands, about Falstaff’s scheme. Mayhem ensures.
In a clever twist, Vaughn updates the story to the late 1950’s America, using sets that evoke classic TV sets like “I Love Lucy” or “Leave It To Beaver.” The costumes seem to capture the era as well. The directors who tackle Shakespeare’s plays at the Shakes often love to relocate the piece to a different era and setting, and this one is no exception.
“This play reminds me of sitcoms that highlighted the innocence of the late 50’s like The Andy Griffith Show, I Love Lucy, and Leave it to Beaver,” Vaughn noted. “The central theme that resonated among all of these programs was that of community and people coming together in the midst of adversity. But they never took themselves too seriously.”
The cast is uniformly excellent. Warren Kelley, so powerfully dramatic in the Shakes’ recent production of ”To Kill a Mockingbird”, is a scream as the jealous Master Ford – his comedic timing is just brilliant. At times he evokes Darrin Stephens from “Bewitched,” nervous twitch and all, with hilarious results.
John Ahlin is equally good as Falstaff, and he plays nicely off Jean Tafler and Suzanne O’Donnell as Mistresses Ford and Page.
Whether their aim was to convince us that Shakespeare truly did know how to write a riotous comedy, or to show that the Bard’s comedy still works effectively when updated to a modern approach to comedy, either way it does what’s it’s supposed to do – evoke lots of audience laughter. On those old 1950s show, some of the laughter was canned. During the performance of “Merry Wives” that I saw, it was the real thing.
The play opens tonight and runs through March 7 in the Margeson Theater. Tickets are available by calling 407-447-1700, Ext. 1, online, or in person at the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center at 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando.
Show times are at 7:30 p.m. except during senior matinees on Feb. 18 and March 4, when performances begin at 2 p.m.
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