Theater review: 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' in Griffith Park
The spirits of Joseph Papp and Mack Sennett currently hover above Griffith Park, where "The Merry Wives of Windsor" goes for knockabout broke. Independent Shakespeare Company launches its seventh season of free outdoor productions with a corker of a revival.
First published in 1602, likely written somewhat earlier, "Merry Wives" is largely prosaic, the Bard's sole look at the middle class of his era. Legend has it Elizabeth I requested more of rotund rascal Sir John Falstaff (Danny Campbell) from the "Henry IV" plays, and the gusto that director Melissa Chalsma and her aerated players supply indicates that the Virgin Queen was spot-on.
Placing the action in the post-World War I period -- designer Kate Bishop's costumes evoke silent film comedies -- Chalsma keeps the pribbles and prabbles cascading well beyond the platforms and hanging laundry of Caitlin Lainoff's functional set. The company's mission -- to make Shakespeare accessible to modern audiences through analogous performance conditions -- is everywhere in evidence, plot convolutions ricocheting over the grounds, to convulsive effect.
Campbell, pitched between Ned Beatty and Timothy Spall, exudes understated braggadocio as Falstaff. From initial Garter Inn departure to behorned confusion at the final Windsor Forest masquerade, this Sir John forms the rib-tickling fulcrum of a wittily capable troupe.
His romantic targets, the titular spouses -- Bernadette Sullivan's acerbic Meg Page and Aisha Kabia's resonant Alice Ford -- devour their counter-plotting, the celebrated laundry hamper scene but one object lesson in comic technique. Richard Azurdia's vividness turns on a hysterical dime from affability to outrage as Page. David Melville has a field day as Ford, the impacted Cockney ire shifting to Eric Idle-worthy faux-silkiness in his "Master Brook" incognito.
Southern California annually enjoys worthy outdoor Shakespeare. Theatricum Botanicum is underway with its own well-received "Merry Wives" and time-tested "Midsummer Night's Dream," the Old Globe in San Diego just opened "Much Ado About Nothing," and there's more to come. If this unpretentious charmer stands out amid an already packed calendar, it's because (a) it's free; (b) the requisite blankets and picnics create a true communal experience; and (c) it's a hoot. At the reviewed performance, hyenas from the zoo sounded forth during Act 2, doing what hyenas do. I couldn't agree more.
-- David C. Nichols
"The Merry Wives of Windsor," Old L.A. Zoo, Griffith Park, near 4730 Crystal Springs Drive, Los Angeles; 7 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, runs in repertory, see website for schedule and directions. Ends July 31. Free. (818) 710-6306 or www.iscla.org. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.
Photo: Richard Azurdia wrestles David Melville. Credit: Independent Shakespeare Company.