The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of the easiest of Shakespeare’s comedies to understand. There’s deception, of course, and one character dons a disguise, but otherwise it’s all pretty straightforward. Sir John Falstaff makes advances on two married women, Mistresses Ford and Page. The women, disgusted by the fat knight, cook up a plot to humiliate him. When Frank Ford, Mistress Ford’s husband, misinterprets his wife’s attentions toward Falstaff, he becomes jealous, eventually undertaking his own scheme by donning the disguise of Mr. Brook. Meanwhile three men seek the hand of Anne Page, and she and her parents all disagree as to whom she should marry. At the height of the plot against Falstaff, Anne manages to evade both the men chosen by her parents in order to run off with her own choice.
It’s all good fun that isn’t much more complicated (or meaningful) than a TV sitcom (as the Director’s Notes tell us, but is far more entertaining. In this American Shakespeare Center production, that’s due to the flawless performances by the ASC resident company. First, there’s James Keegan as Falstaff. The fat suit helps, but Keegan is a dominant force when he’s on stage, and he makes the “roguish knight” larger than life, as he should be. And yet, when Falstaff is humiliated, he seems to shrink and fade. As he should. Then there are the Merry Wives, Sarah Fallon as Mistress Ford and Denice Burbach as Mistress Page. Fallon is well known to the Blackfriars faithful, and this is another fine, fine performance. She is cunning and playful, a great foil for Falstaff. Burbach is a welcome newcomer to the company and makes a delightful Mistress Page.
And the husbands: Luke Eddy (most recently with the touring company) is a charming George Page, who is set on seeing his daughter Anne (Victoria Reinsel) married to the foppish (and rich) Master Slender, played hilariously by Chris Johnston. But Mistress Page has chosen Doctor Caius, a French physician, for Anne. Caius is played for major laughs by newcomer Daniel Rigney. (The accent sounds more French Canadian than French, I think, but no matter; Rigney does a terrific job in this very funny role.) The third suitor is Fenton, played by another unfamiliar face, Tobias Shaw, and he is clearly going to win the day. John Harrell plays the jealous Frank Ford who visits Falstaff in the disguise of Master Brook, and, as usual, nearly steals the show.
I should also mention a trio of ASC veterans who, with considerable comic skill, aid and abet the action. Alison Glenzer is Mistress Quickly, who for some reason is helping all three of the suitors; René Thornton Jr. is Shallow, the old (and lascivious) man who is promoting Slender’s case, Chris Seiler is Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson.
This terrific production is highly entertaining, and since it will be with us all summer and fall, I’m looking forward to seeing it again.