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Merry Wives

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 9, 2021

The Cast
Photo by Joan Marcus
It's unlikely that anyone ever asked Shakespeare to resurrect the deceased characters of Romeo and Juliet, or Hamlet, or Macbeth. What's done cannot be undone. Or so it would seem.

But Shakespeare could not refuse the demand for more of John Falstaff, that overstuffed, bloviating scoundrel and corrupting companion to Prince Hal who first appeared in Henry IV, Part 1. Not even deflating and finally killing him off in two subsequent plays freed the Bard from breathing new life into the widely popular character. Indeed, it is said that Queen Elizabeth I herself insisted upon it. Thus was born the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which a regenerated Falstaff is the focus of the merriment.

Now, Sir John has landed at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park in an adaptation by Jocelyn Bioh (School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play), who has reshaped Shakespeare's play into an Americanized version of an African trickster tale, clocking in at 110 intermissionless minutes with the pared-down title, Merry Wives.

Bioh has transplanted the characters from Elizabethan England to contemporary 116th Street in Harlem and has transformed them into a community of immigrants from Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, and Liberia. At center and fully in charge are the pair of "merry wives" of the story. They are the owner of the local laundromat, Madam Ford (Susan Kelechi Watson), and her dear friend, the wealthy socialite Madam Page (Pascale Armand). The production, directed at a slapstick pace by Saheem Ali, kicks into high gear when each of the women receives a mash note proposing a rendezvous from Falstaff (an effusive and very funny Jacob Ming-Trent, injured during an early preview but now in fine fettle).

Falstaff is so full of himself, not to mention inordinately lazy, that he has written the same note to both women. "I bet he has a thousand of those written with blank spaces for different names," says Madam Page when the women get together. The derisive sounds of teeth sucking and "eh-heh" punctuate their conversation when they join forces to plan on teaching this brazen rogue a lesson he won't soon forget.

And so they set their trap, not once but several times, as our trickster gets tricked over and over by different schemes. You'd think he'd figure it out eventually, but as he puts it in an explanatory aside to the audience: "Didn't think you'd see me back here, did you? Me neither! It's been a long, hard year. Been stuck in the house just eating snacks and watching Netflix. You know what I'm talking about. So can you blame me for tryna get with Madam Page and Madam Ford?"

The trio of Watson, Armand, and Ming-Trent play beautifully off each other, and theirs is decidedly the principal story. But they are not alone in this diverse yet close-knit Harlem community. Merry Wives cleverly deconstructs and reinterprets other Shakespearean tropes, including marital jealousy, competing matchmaking schemes, and gender roles, with fine performances all around and a happy ending to boot. There are also eye-catching sets by Beowulf Boritt depicting the neighborhood, and a luscious feast of colorful costumes by Dede Ayite.

Today's official opening deserves a huge round of appreciative applause and kudos, and not just for the onstage pleasures it provides. It marks the first Public Theater production at the Delacorte since the pre-pandemic summer of 2019, and it comes on the heels of enough trials and tribulations to feed a Shakespearean drama itself. From the start of previews, it was plagued with a string of delays, canceled performances, an injured lead actor, storm washouts, and the specter of COVID looming in the shadows. (Proof of vaccination, government-issued IDs, and masks are required for most in attendance, though there is a separate section set aside with social-distanced seating for the non-vaccinated). So hats off and three cheers to all who collaborated with great skill and determination in order to bring Merry Wives to fruition. It makes for an idyllic evening of theater under the stars.

Merry Wives
The Public Theater
Through September 18, 2021
Delacorte Theater in Central Park. Enter at 81st Street & Central Park West or 79th Street & Fifth Avenue
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