“The plot is certainly thin,” said one grouchy-looking woman as she left Folger Shakespeare Theatre’s new staging of the Bard’s Merry Wives of Windsor. But the friend she was talking to was still laughing, which is kind of the point. Wives, like many of Shakespeare’s comedies, exists mainly to twist characters in plotting knots, and to later untangle them to funny and often philosophical effect.
And director Aaron Posner’s groovy, circa-1972 spin on the 1602 play does precisely that, pitting the would-be wife seducer Sir John Falstaff (Brian Mani) against two canny women from the town of Windsor—Mistress Page (Ami Brabson) and Mistress Ford (Regina Aquino)—and their mostly hapless husbands. If the plot is one part “That 1970s Show” and two parts “Three’s Company”-like romp, that’s all the better for Posner to mine comic gold lamé from an old-yet-beloved text. And that he also delves into the play’s inherent issues of female power without seeming heavy-handed makes the staging all the more engaging.
The Merry Wives of Windsor closes March 1, 2020. DCTS details and tickets
That grouchy lady is right on one thing: the set-up is simple. Falstaff (yep, the same rogue-ish barfly character Shakespeare chronicles in the Henry 4 plays) is a down-on-his-luck schmuck out to compromise two of Windsor’s rich housewives in exchange for payouts from their husbands—Tyee Tilghman’s smug Page and Eric Hissom’s jealous Ford. But the ladies, who control both their husbands’ homes and their finances, are too wise to let that happen. Instead, they connive to fool Falstaff into indignities like jumping into a trash dumpster and dressing as an old crone.
A subplot involving the Pages’ daughter Anne (winsomely played by Linda Bard) sees her fending off her own ridiculous suitors, including scene-stealing Dr. Caius, an older French gentleman Cody Nickell gives a hilariously bad accent and cartoonish pratfalls that’d impress SpongeBob SquarePants.
The actors breezily rock and roll through Posner’s liberally adapted take on the play. Mani’s Falstaff oozes what he thinks is charm, at one point hilariously reading love notes to the wives out loud like some telenovela villain, later showing his bravado is a farce when Mr. Ford gives him a sound beating. The women, particularly Aquino’s smart, sexy Mistress Page and Kate Eastwood Norris as the doctor’s assistant, are clearly the smarter and fairer sex in this show. They’re savvy and shining, whether toting “ERA Now” signs or, in Norris’ case, managing the lives (and love lives) of multiple bumbling dudes. A couple of corny songs and some disco dancing up the 1970s mood.
It all takes place in an upscale suburb that scenic designer Tony Cisek depicts via “Brady Bunch”-era elements like jumbo, graphic stained-glass windows, dark wood beams and fern planters galore. Devon Painter’s costumes boast a similar Richard Nixon-era vibe, with Falstaff putting tie-dyed shirts and leisure suiting over his ginormous belly, the wives rocking bright shirt dresses and Anne Page sporting roller skates and a patched denim mini skirt. Mr. Ford (on press night ably played by understudy Ryan Sellers) gets one of the show’s most memorable looks—a striped suit with a Rolling Stones lip T-shirt underneath—for a couple of standout scenes where he too, fools Falstaff.
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All the action and misdirection leads, no surprise, to a big old happy ending after some costumed fairies dance, Fallstaff is ridiculed again and young Anne Page finds true love. Yes, the audience probably knew where this show was going all along, but getting there is truly all the fun. And that it showcases some very strong women as well makes for a very merry evening indeed.
[Editor’s note: This will be Folger Theatre’s final romp with the Bard in their Capitol Hill venue for a while. The Folger Shakespeare Library will undergo renovation over the next two years. Folger Theatre’s next production will be A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the National Building Museum, July 4-September 7, 2020. View their 2020-2021 season here.]
The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare. Directed by Aaron Posner. Starring Regina Aquino, Linda Bard, Ami Brabson, Louis E. Davis, Danielle Gallo, Tommy A Gomez, Eric Hissom, Brian Mani, Cody Nickell, Kate Eastwood Norris, Brian Reisman, Dante Robert Rossi, Todd Scofield, Tyee Tilghman and Derrick Truby. Set design by Tony Ciseck. Costumes by Devon Painter. Lighting design by Max Doolittle. Original music and sound design by Matthew Nielson. Produced by Folger Theatre. Reviewed by Jennifer Barger.
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