Arriving like a tricked-out cherry-red 1970 Chevy Chevelle, the Folger’s Merry Wives of Windsor (★★★★★) is magnificently ridiculous. Reimagined (or, perhaps better said reinvented) by director Aaron Posner, this is Shakespeare in the manner of a 1970s style sitcom. It’s funny, fresh, most wholly irreverent and quite possibly the best Wives you will ever see. And that’s saying something: Wives, with its simple tale of the flamboyant Falstaff’s attempt to bed local wives while young lovers evade the marriage plans of anxious adults, is a play that can run tediously flat in the wrong hands.
But like a well-built V8 muscle car, this production has got power under the hood. Adapted for speed and fun, Posner is firing on all pistons — not only does he highlight the natural comedy of the play, he spins it up for a savvy, contemporary audience. There is plenty of broad humor, but there are equal doses of Posner’s urbane-electric wit. The best of it will not be spoiled here, but suffice to say, this is a veritable playground of wordplay, cleverly delivered pastiche, and ironically employed hits of the ’70s.
And at the risk of sounding like a broken (vinyl) record, Wives is also, once again, a Folger ensemble at its most seamlessly cohesive, so pleasingly suggestive of a traveling troupe that has come to town, sharing lives and roles. These are actors who truly understand what it means to give it all to their character in the moment, but to give just as much to the wider mood, tone and, comedy of the piece. Combine these skills with Posner’s immensely clear vision and the result is a piece that moves and delivers like clockwork. But like all Folger at its best, the audience is always in on the joke, the players energized by the fact that every seat in the house is within intimate distance. Such a great way to experience theater.
Also remarkable is the fact that this play’s Falstaff follows so quickly on the heels of the very different rendering in Folger’s recent Henry IV, Part One. That they in no way argue is a tribute to both interpretations and the strongly defined “personality” of each production. If Edward Gero’s man was the canny but wounded survivor in a dangerous world, here, Brian Mani’s Falstaff is the irrepressibly louche buffoon — an unhingedly charismatic hippy-biker who is as hilarious as he is unreconstructed. Both are drawn with pitch-perfect sensibility and they live happily in alternate universes. As for Mani, he walks a highly skilled line, playing it to the hilt without losing any of Posner’s clever nuance.
Another standout is the ever-interesting Cody Nickell in the role of Dr. Caius, proving immensely giggle-worthy with a performance well in the vein of that finest of comedies, Blackadder. Playing the accent for all it’s worth, Nickell upends the usual clichés, giving his deranged suitor hilarious intensity. As his assistant, Mistress Quickly, Kate Eastwood Norris is also in her element, delivering guileless Midwesterner’s wordplay as fluidly as she does physical comedy. And always an indispensable cornerstone, Eric Hissom offers a suitably tortured, super-square Ford, neurotically fixated on whether he is being cuckolded, even if his alter-ego British rocker never quite flies as high.
In smaller roles, but nevertheless bringing so much of what makes this such fun, are Tommy A. Gomez as a fabulously pitch-perfect ’70s Latino-retro Justice Shallow, while Louis E. Davis as Mine Host somehow manages to deliver his Shakespeare with brilliantly fluid urban-contemporary flair. Todd Scofield, as the pious Sir Hugh Evans, offers a marvelously awkward space cadet with a surprisingly passable Welsh accent. As burnout Nym and a warmly genuine suitor Fenton, Dante Robert Rossi shows nicely drawn versatility, while Brian Reisman delivers a truly charming and gently charismatic Abraham Slender. Finally, mention must be made of Tony Ciseks’ understated mid-century set and Devon Painter’s clever costumes.
If there is a quibble, it’s a small one. Writ suitably large as the wives at the center of the play, Regina Aquino’s Mistress Page and Ami Brabson’s Mistress Ford certainly cover the ground. But as adept as they are, neither quite offers the kind of verve and nerve that would have made these women sing. Aquino tends to play it a tad too hard to the audience, while Brabson misses the opportunity to have more fun with the role. Though they never detract, they don’t especially enhance the shenanigans either.
But there is no stopping the fun here, and in the words of the ’70s band War, this “overfed, long-haired, leaping gnome” of a Falstaff will bring nothing but (apologies to Three Dog Night) joy to your world.
Merry Wives of Windsor runs through March 1 at the Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. Tickets are $27 to $85. Call 202-544-7077 or visit www.folger.edu.
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