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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
The Merry Wives of Windsor
By Elyse Sommer
The comedy, which opened officially last Saturday, is also a family story but in a distinctly different tone. It's a zany tale in which two wealthy, misunderstood and neglected wives make merry with misguided husbands and with Sir John Falstaff. The famous fat knight is said to have been brought back via this play at the request of Queen Elizabeth who reigns merrily over its final scene. Unlike Hamlet, a frontrunner for the best ever written and most quoted play, The Merry Wives. . . is more rarity than top-of-the-line Shakespeare. It's written in prose with nary a memorable quote and is Shakespeare's only farce. Minor as its place in the canon may be, if directed, as this production is, by a director with a flair for sight gags that set you to giggling, and with a fabulously funny Falstaff like Malcolm Ingram, it's your chance to meet Shakespeare as if time traveling to Hollywood on a screwball comedy assignment. In short, three hours of fun and a perfect shift of mood from the more somber tragedy with which it alternates.
Before I go into specifics about the production, here's a thimble-sized synopsis of the zany doings you can expect:
Falstaff, the famous fat knight, resides in Windsor. Broke and down on his luck, he schemes to swindle two prominent and wealthy families by seducing the wives and stealing their husbands' fortune. The wives have other plans for him. Besides the primary plot about their giving Sir Big Belly his comeuppance there's the love story revolving around the Pages' daughter Anne and Fenton, the young man she prefers to her parents' choices. To round out the madcap antics we have the malaprop prone Mistress Quickly, housekeeper to the English challenged French physician, Dr. Caius, one of Anne's doomed to fail suitors (the other being Abraham Slender, a slender of brain land owner). Oh yes, there's also the Host of the local inn who loves to play practical jokes on his friends. In the end revenge sought is revenge won, and parents are won over to true love. All is indeed merry by the time the various misadventures are sorted out.
Unlike Hamlet this production features a large cast which is firmly anchored by several towering performances. Topping these is Ingram's bulls-eye Falstaff, maintaining his superb diction despite repeated pratfalls that include being pushed into a basket full of dirty laundry and then dumped into the Thames River. Not as fat but as Falstaffian is Michael Hammond's equally hilarious Frank Ford, the jealous husband who uses a disguise reminiscent of the old Mark of Zorro movies to entrap his wife. That wife, played with impish charm by Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Corinna May as her more acerbic friend, Mistress Page, make a fine team of early feminists determined to teach their husbands and the self-important Falstaff a lesson. But the most triumphantly comic female on stage is Elizabeth Ingram's Mistress Quickly-- especially in a scene that could be written for a Saturday Night Life skit in which she and Falstaff (her off-stage spouse) literally fall all over each other. Company regulars, Jonathan Croy and David Demke, also have great fun as the unsuitable suitors (Croy as Dr. Caius and Demke as Abraham Slender).
Director Tony Simotes handily manipulates these key players, the young lovers (Katie Zaffran and Ryan Winkles) and the rest of the cast so that they fill the stage and use all the aisles. Having the actors gather to introduce the action with a festive dance, and again at the end, ingeniously gives this raucous farce a lovely Midsummer Night's Dream fairy tale quality.
Resident costume designer Arthur Oliver has seen to it that everyone is gorgeously outfitted. Falstaff's fat suit is as much a star as its wearer, and its deterioration after that involuntary river excursion is as awesome as it is funny.
I'll admit that I tend to prefer Shakespeare's tragedies to his comedies and given a choice of one or the other of the two plays now on offer, I'd pick Hamlet and his mum and dad (on stage as well as in real life) over the hammy Falstaff and the Mistresses Ford and Page. That said, this Merry Wives. . . is so colorful and zestfully performed, that I'd hate to have missed it. If you want to see Malcolm Ingram navigating between the roles of a fat and fatuous nobleman and an uptight, slim as a reed 1920s Londoner who also gets his comeuppance -- best also buy tickets to see Enchanted April . While you're at it, you might want to buy tickets for the fourth show sharing the theater, a duo of one-acts --Martha Mitchell Calling & No Background Music.