Theater review: 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' at the Broad Stage
Long before Lucy and Ethel were hatching their mad-housewife schemes, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, the merry wives of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” were plotting their farcical suburban revenges. You heard right: Shakespeare, that master of soliloquizing subtlety, is also one of the fathers of sitcom zaniness.
The revival at the Broad Stage of this knockabout Elizabethan comedy, a London import from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, kindly requests that audiences leave their seriousness and snobbery at the door. There’s no official announcement, but the production broadcasts its slapstick intentions from the get-go, with goofy costumes, chomping malapropisms and enough pratfall routines to keep a vaudeville act busy for multiple seasons. The silliness stretches thin in places, with the supporting team straining for giggles that were no doubt more easily obtained outdoors at the Globe, but the main plot is reborn with a chuckling freshness.
Often frowned upon as an exercise in extended horseplay, “Merry Wives” lacks the verbal shimmer and character depth of Shakespeare’s great comedies.Theatrical lore has it that the work was a sequel, written at the behest of Elizabeth I, who wanted her star playwright to bring back Sir John Falstaff, the rotund figure of vice from the two parts of “Henry IV,” for a little romantic misadventure.
Antique jests, after all, can be a chore, and the unrelenting tomfoolery of “Merry Wives” is a mixed bag. But the sight of Falstaff climbing into a giant laundry basket of soiled linen and underclothes to conceal himself from a jealous husband is potently mood-elevating. Reading the scene doesn’t cut it. It’s the kind of hysterically funny bit you have to see to believe.
Christopher Benjamin plays the old booze-balloon with a long face and a mellifluous phoniness. He fills the outline of the role adequately well, in a production that appreciates the character for what he is — the recipient of comic comeuppance. Throughout much of the “Henry IV” saga, Falstaff was allowed to upstage his company with illusion-puncturing wit. In "Merry Wives," the Lord of Misrule is an outsider in the close-knit world of Windsor, and his disruptive influence is countered by a force greater than royal privilege — middle-class morality.
Determined to make cuckolds out of levelheaded George Page (Michael Garner) and hotheaded Frank Ford (Andrew Havill), Falstaff never suspects that the married women he’s separately wooing have banded together to teach him a lesson. Meg Page (a satisfyingly astringent Serena Evans) and Alice Ford (a game Sarah Woodward) are aided by Mistress Quickly (a delectably wry Sue Wallace), the self-serving housekeeper of Dr. Caius (Philip Bird), a pompous French physician who's embroiled in a fierce competition to wed Meg’s daughter, Anne (Ceri-Lyn Cissone).
Mistress Quickly has a hand in all of the town’s furtive dealings, her sympathies readily swayed by a sympathetic appeal and a generous tip. That’s how Fenton (Gerard McCarthy), a dashing gentleman, has persuaded her to help him in his ardent pursuit of Anne, even though Windsor's resident busybody has no problem also promising Master Slender (William Belchambers) her support. (No worries: This Master Slender, a dimwitted fop, appears to be more interested in young men than beautiful maidens.)
Three seems to be the magic number. That’s the number of suitors for Anne (whose parents are backing different, and equally wrong, candidates) and the number of times Falstaff gets cruelly duped. The mathematics can’t help being repetitive, but that doesn't make the high jinks always easy to sort out. Best to read a synopsis beforehand to understand why the indecipherable Welsh parson (Gareth Armstrong) is being challenged to a duel by Caius. (Erratic acoustics, some badly modulated musical direction and cartoonish characterizations turn this subplot into a boisterous jumble.)
Productions of “Merry Wives” work best when they convey a strong sense of Windsor community. This is achieved here through the portrayals of Meg, Alice and Mistress Quickly, whose casual reliance on one another is a bulwark that not even Falstaff can bust through.
There's an enormous amount of play-acting on display, even by the larky standards of Shakespearean comedy. Disguises, elaborate charades and a supernatural masquerade marking the hilarious crescendo of Falstaff’s humiliation encourage arch postures and melodramatic flourishes. The feverish histrionics are indeed sprightly. But it’s the straightforward depiction of neighbors in cahoots that provokes the brightest merriment.
— Charles McNulty
"The Merry Wives of Windsor," 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. 7:30 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday. 2 and 7:30 Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 24. Ends Oct. 24. $32 to $120 (310) 434-3200. www.TheBroadStage.com Running time 2 hours, 30 minutes
Photos: Top: Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward. Bottom: Christopher Benjamin and Evans. Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times.