"The Merry Wives of Windsor" is a great, sprawling play in which Shakespeare took one of his most popular characters from "Henry IV," Sir John Falstaff, and inserted him into a play that reflected a rapidly changing England.
It's a transformation that can, if not handled well, simply make this larger-than-life character into a cad. But the "Merry Wives" at the Shakespeare Theatre Company has avoided that pitfall.
Director Stephen Rayne sets this production in 1919, a different time from the Elizabethan era that Shakespeare chose, but it's an inspired choice. At the end of World War I, soldiers were returning home broken from war and finding a new, monied middle class in control. In this production, Falstaff (David Schramm) is one of those soldiers who finds himself penniless in a new world order.
Delusional about his charms, Falstaff decides to woo two rich women, Mistress Alice Ford (Caralyn Kozlowski) and Mistress Margaret Page (Veanne Cox) and take their money. He sends them identical love letters. They compare letters and decide to get revenge upon Falstaff.
|'The Merry Wives of Windsor'|
|Where: Sidney Harman Hall Forum, 610 F St. NW|
|When: Through July 15|
|Info: $20 to $100; 202-547-1122; ShakespeareTheatre.org|
All the actors are excellent in this "Merry Wives." Schramm makes it possible to sympathize with Falstaff even though he's a rake. He's immensely funny, betrayed by his appetites, but he's not simply a buffoon. When he's ridiculed at the end of the play, Falstaff's pathos seems intended to teach an object lesson about humility.
Kozlowski and Cox make a great pair of intelligent, independent wives. Michael Mastro is delightful as Frank Ford, excessively nervous about his wife's fidelity. George Page is portrayed with solidity and intelligence by Kurt Rhoads.
"Merry Wives" has a subplot dealing with the issue of whom the Page's daughter Anne (Alyssa Gagarin) will marry. The potential suitors include Doctor Caius (the brilliant Tom Story), the simpleton Abraham Slender (Michael Keyloun) and the man Anne loves, Fenton (Mark Sullivan).
The whimsical costumes, by Wade Laboissonniere, clarify a variety of classes and roles in life. Laboissonniere references Doctor Caius's French heritage in his blue and white dueling outfit. He creates lovely period dresses for Mistresses Ford and Page, and a hat that looks like a feathered crescent moon for Mistress Ford.
Rayne succeeds in infusing this "Merry Wives" with vitality and the light touch of farce, always suggesting there's a purpose to our witnessing the ultimate frailty of one very substantial man.