Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Shakespeare Theatre Returns with a Traditional Merry Wives of Windsor
There are a couple of major plot threads. One involves the efforts of the roguish Falstaff to seduce Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, and derive benefit from their control over their respective husbands' monies. When these merry wives discover that Falstaff has sent identical letters of seduction to each of them, they conspire to lead the rogue on in order to embarrass and humiliate him. Alerted to Falstaff's plan by two of his servants, their husbands, one trusting of his wife, the other not, intrude, adding to the hi-jinks.
In another thread, Master and Mistress Page's daughter, Anne, is being courted by three suitors, the preening Dr. Caius (favored by her father), the foolish Slender (favored by her mother), and the well born, but penniless Fenton (favored by ... I'm certain that you can guess who!).
During the early going, the performance is dullish and mild, garnering only occasional chuckles. However, the slapstick comedy, which has been meticulously set up, kicks in later (act three, scene three when Falstaff arrives for his first assignation with Mistress Ford) with some real laughs. From there on, this production is lively and amusing (with the exeption of a poorly executed fog enshrouded scene (act five, scene four when Falstaff is ridiculed in Windsor Park). The view from here is that there are two major problems. Firstly, the basically satisfactory top bananas are both too standard issue and actorish to truly amuse. The second problem is that, until he becomes a victim of the merry wives, Falstaff is played as a bombastic, unadulterated bully and thief. A little sly charm and the excuse of inebriation could go a long way toward injecting humor here. After all, Falstaff is most often found ensconced in the tavern at the Garter Inn.
Given the dead on, wildly hilarious version of Merry Wives set at a Catskills resort hotel in the 1950's that STNJ and director Daniel Fish gave us a decade ago, and the penchant for staid (albeit well done) presentations that has become de rigueur at STNJ, it is hard not to be disappointed by the opportunity not seized here. You see, Merry Wives is ideal for transposition because the bourgeois and haute bourgeois in the play offer, in crucial ways, mirror images of our friends and neighbors (but not you and me, of course).
Allison Daugherty as Mistress Ford and Randy Danson as Mistress Page both have a delightful light touch as they revel in outsmarting their husbands and foolish suitor. Eric Hoffmann's Falstaff is the perfect victim, hilariously obsequious as he cowers in defeat and danger. Particular praise is due to James Michael Reilly, whose jealous Ford (in and out of disguise) brings vitality and laughter to the evening's proceedings. John Little is charming as the trusting Page.
Ames Adamson (Welsh Parson Evans), Robert Hock (Justice Shallow), Patrick Toyon (suitor Slender), and David Fobber (Dr. Caius) make for satisfactory standard clowns. However, their performances are less than inspired. Similarly satisfactory is Dana Smith-Carroll as the crusty go-between Mistress Quickly. Holly Fain is a smooth and fresh Anne Page. Chris Landis is fine as her Fenton. Joshua Harrier is charming as Anne's schoolboy brother and Falstaff's page boy (although his casting in two roles did cause me some confusion).
Director Jason King Jones keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. Jones is adept and inventive in his employment of physical comedy. Set designer Brian Raspberry has designed a first class wooden unit set. It consists of a series of arches, lattice doors, platforms and a stairway to an upper level. There is a small revolve which upon turning reveals the tavern at the Garter Inn and another stairway. The period costumes by Maggie Dick are attractive and appropriate.
The Merry Wives of Windsor continues performances through June 26 (Eves.: Tues. 7:30 pm Wed. Sat. 8 pm Sun. 7:00 pm (except 6/26)/ Matinees: Sat. & Sun. 2 pm) at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on campus at Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue at Lancaster Road, Madison, NJ, 07940; Box Office: 973-408-5600; online www.ShakespeareNJ.org.
The Merry Wives of Windsor