By Philip Pearce
The legend is that Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor in response to a request from Elizabeth R for a play “about Falstaff in love.”
It’s probably a made-up story, but, true or imagined, the result is Falstaff-lite. The swaggering, staggering retread lothario of Merry Wives is, as Harold Bloom was at pains to remind us, a far cry from the gutsy, larger-than-life, Machiavellian scamp of Henry IV and Henry V.
That said, this story of Falstaff’s efforts to avoid bankruptcy by some shrewd adultery in an English country town full of wheeler-dealers is funny enough. Santa Cruz Shakespeare sets it in jazz age Britain, with Sir John done up rather like Major General Stanley left over from The Pirates of Penzance and the merry matrons Ford and Page in cloche hats and slinky flapper garb. It’s a pretty good fit, especially when the wonderful comedy team of Julia Coffey and Greta Wohlrabe hit their stride in Act 2 with a scheme to show up the old lecher in routines that echo the time honored “quick, into the closet, here comes my husband” structure of a 1920s farce. It’s a period and a genre that have traditionally called for a lot of fast footwork in and out of slammed doors, which might have been a bit of a stretch for the sylvan outdoor Sinsheimer-Stanley Grove.
Undaunted, director Kirsten Brandt and scene designer Eric Barker trot out a succession of brightly colored wheeled doors whenever the plot calls for one of them to be knocked on, opened, slammed shut or hidden behind. It’s fast-paced and over the top and a lot of fun once it gets revved up and exploding.
The blustering and energetic Richard Zimon plays Falstaff with one rheumy eye on the main chance and the other on audience reaction. He sets a pattern for a cast who exploit every opportunity of wooing patrons out front, with winks and kicks and leers and even, in the case of exuberant, funny Carly Cioffi’s Mistress Quickly, a bit of Helen Kane’s “I Wanna Be Loved by You.”
The main point is humiliating Falstaff for coming on to both merry wives with identically worded love letters, a ploy the crafty if vulnerable Sir John of the Henry plays would have instantly seen as too stupid to work. For his pains, the Falstaff of The Merry Wives first gets shoved into a basket of stinking laundry (I loved the sweaty struggles of two minions to move the overburdened receptacle). Fresh from a dunking in the Thames, he is then subjected to a late evening ghost and fair event so full of Elizabethan folklore and superstition that it’s likely to confuse a modern audience and tempted me to think, enough already.
The concurrent subplot involves a couple of unsuitable suitors for the hand of Mistress Ford’s daughter Nan (Maribel Martinez). One is William Elsman, who does some hilarious, proto-Clouseau clowning as the Gallic candidate Dr. Caius. The other is a stringy young golf enthusiast named Abraham Slender, played by Dan Flapper in the loudest pair of Argyle socks I’ve ever seen. Marcus Cato as decrepit Justice Shallow and Kit Wilder as a prissy and pedantic Welsh parson named Sir Hugh Evans back efforts to link either the doctor or the golfer to heiress Nan’s tidy fortune. Their schemes fail of course and Hugh Coles, whom we’ve been rooting for right from the start as the nice, unassuming Mr. Fenton, gets the girl and the cash.
Not a great story, but a lot of accompanying humor in the form of bright verbal gymnastics and dialect jokes, some of which still work and some of which just pass pleasantly enough through an enjoyable evening.
The play continues in repertory with As You Like It and The Beard of Avon through August 10th.