Brian Isaac Phillips, director of the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company‘s latest production, concluded his opening introduction with the suggestion William Shakespeare essentially invented the modern sitcom. CSC’s over-the-top “The Merry Wives of Windsor” takes that conceit and runs with it, with a fun-loving and breezy presentation that never tries to over-think itself.
Shakespeare’s plot is certainly as light and airy as a TV sitcom. Sir John Falstaff (Billy Chace), the bombastic, alcoholic and gravity-challenged companion of Prince Hal from “Henry IV”, is out of cash and attempts to woo two of Windsor’s wealthier wives to make himself flush (in more ways than one): Mistress Page (Jennifer Joplin) and Mistress Ford (Abby Lee). They get wind of his plans and hatch one of their own to embarrass and discredit him by leading him on, despite the jealousy of Mistress Ford’s husband, Frank (David Everett Moore). Meanwhile, Mistress Page’s husband, George (Sylvester Little, Jr.) is trying to marry his daughter Anne (Kahla Tisdale) to Abraham Slender (Crystian Wiltshire), the rich but otherwise ineffectual son of his friend, Justice Shallow (Paul Riopelle). Mistress Page prefers the foppish French Doctor Caius (Justin McCombs), but Anne herself wants the handsome young Fenton (Kenny Hamilton).
CSC sets this version of “Merry Wives” in New York of the 1910’s, in recognition of women’s suffrage, the centennial of the 19th Amendment giving women the right to vote, and its “Season of the Woman”. It’s an inspiring thought, but while CSC usually integrates its anachronistic settings ingeniously into the text, this one seems a little artificial and tacked on. Certainly the play emphasizes the more prudent and thoughtful judgment of its women characters over their male counterparts, which fits the suffrage theme, but if you are looking for any more feminist undercurrents in the play than that you will be disappointed, as it is otherwise a model for traditional family values, wifely loyalty and conservatism.
If “Merry Wives” is Shakespeare’s sitcom it comes with the same limitations of a modern situation comedy: stereotypic characters, repetitive jokes, and a plot no deeper than Falstaff’s pockets. Director Brian Isaac Phillips wisely doesn’t try to gloss over the shortcomings of one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays but rather lets it revel in its broad humor and colorful characters. Costume designer Rainy Edward’s eye-catching palette and unbridled wittiness support the humor, while sound designer Douglas Borntrager and lighting designer Justen Locke introduce a number of amusing effects to enhance the feeling of a television comedy. Shannon Robert’s scenic design, mostly consisting of two rotating houses, is serviceable but otherwise relatively subdued.
CSC once again demonstrates the depth and talent of its acting ensemble. Befittingly, the women take center stage. Jennifer Joplin and Abby Lee, as Mistresses Page and Ford, brighten every scene they are in, have incredible chemistry together, and just appear to be having a rip-roaring great time. So does Miranda McGee as Mistress Quickly, who helps the women in their plans and plays off against Falstaff with barely masked restraint. Chace’s Falstaff is spontaneous, spirited and indefatigable even in defeat. Sylvester Little, Jr. plays George Page with the boyish charm of vintage Billy Dee Williams and newcomer David Everette Moore’s Frank Ford is surprisingly multilayered and sympathetic. All of the supporting cast contribute in their own quirky and unique ways, highlighted by McComb’s unabashedly ridiculous Doctor Caius and Geoffrey Warren Barnes II as the barely intelligible Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans.
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” may not be one of Shakespeare’s better regarded plays, and certainly doesn’t have the emotional or philosophical depths of many of his other comedies. Still, it was an enjoyable glimpse of a less self-conscious Shakespeare that one doesn’t often get to experience, and the CSC approached it with great delight and enthusiasm. So, if you want to get a little Elizabethan take on “Designing Women” and “Desperate Housewives” of Windsor, tune in, playing through December 7th. Tickets are available on their website, www.cincyshakes.com.