Theater Review: 'Merry Wives' at play in the gardens of Shakespeare & Company

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LENOX — Published in 1602 but believed to have been written several years earlier, "The Merry Wives of Windsor" has long been among Shakespeare's least regarded plays. Theater lore has it that the Bard of Avon wrote the farce hastily under command of Queen Elizabeth I who had fallen so in love with the character of Sir John Falstaff in the two parts of "Henry IV" that she wanted Shakespeare to write a play showing Falstaff in love.

What Shakespeare turned out was a portrait of Falstaff in lust and longing.

The play is being given a broad, loud, often cumbersome but, at the same time, robust and fitfully engaging production in Shakespeare & Company's outdoor Roman Garden Theatre, just across the terrace from the Tina Packer Playhouse.

This is the Roman Garden's third season and for this production, director Kevin Coleman and Shakespeare & Company artistic director Allyn Burrows have come up with a three-sided configuration featuring what is essentially a thrust stage built up of earth and mulch. There is an inviting intimacy that draws the audience in to each other and to the players.

"The Merry Wives of Windsor" may be lesser Shakespeare but there is no denying the presence of the master — turns of phrase; use of words; control over a complicated plot in which two housewives of Windsor, the mistresses Page (a sublimely earthy MaConnia Chesser) and Ford (a sly, calculating Jennie M. Jadow), both of whom are the objects of Falstaff's lust, turn the tables on the self-indulgent fellow. But even at less than full command of his skills, Shakespeare has some sly observations to make about not only about lovers, fools, and fools for love, but also about marriage, trust, constancy, greed and the negotiations between men and women as they navigate the rocky course of relationships.

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This big, full-out farce is right in Coleman's wheelhouse. Subtlety and nuance, finesse, are not among the directorial tools in his box. Most of his comic devices involve a gratuitous, annoying use of music at various entrances; an overplayed running gag that elicits a bar or two of horn music at mentions of "the horns of Herne;" and self-aware acknowledgments of various anomalies in the setting. At the same time, there are those references and gags that come and go almost unnoticed — the increasing size of a wart over the right eye of Anne Page's true love and worthy suitor, George Fenton (Gregory Boover, whom I saw at a rain-delayed performance, who was pinch-hit for by David Bertoldi at other performance I was able to see all the way through); a neat piece of understatement by the production's Falstaff, Nigel Gore, who, recognizing at last that he has been made a fool of, acknowledges "I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass." Beyond the fact that Gore's Falstaff is stating the obvious, the line, intentionally or not, reads like an inside joke hearkening to anther time when Gore played another ass, Nick Bottom, who is transformed into a donkey, in Shakespeare & Company's 2007 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

The women carry Shakespeare's play and they most certainly carry Coleman's production. In addition to Chasser and Jadow, Cloteal L. Horne's Mistress Quickly, who acts as a go-between in the plot to undo Falstaff, is a one-woman party; upbeat, sure of her ground, devil-may-care.

Nimble Shakespeare & Company newcomer Jordan Cobb shines with a Rosalind-like grace and intelligence as the much sought-after Anne Page and Puckish swaggering and impudence as the Hostess of the Garter.

The men, for the most part, hold their own ably. Glenn Barrett is a stylish delight as one of Anne's unworthy suitors, Dr. Caius, whose speech is marked by Gallic malapropisms and the broadest of French accents. Steven Barkhimer is an acceptable George Page. As Falstaff, Gore goes straight to his Shakespearean comedy playbook. He comes into his own — as does the production — in the second act. where he enriches his palette, especially in a series of superbly crafted scenes with Martin Jason Asprey's shrewdly realized Frank Ford, who is determined to test his wife's fidelity. Asprey hits all the emotional and comedic bases from the get-go, wallowing in righteous indignation at what he is convinced is his wife's treachery; building to a show-stopping monologue — "What a damned Epicurean rascal is this!" Ford begins — in which, filled with anger at the duplicity he is convinced his wife is about to commit with Falstaff, rages against the injustice of it all; reveling in the payback he will exact for the betrayal; spitting out the word "cuckold" three times at the end as if it were the vilest, bitterest bile.

That Coleman's production is more grounded, sharper in its focus and timing after intermission is due in no small measure to the fact that the storytelling is kept largely in the hands of the company's polished, seasoned actors.

All in all, not an unpleasant way to spend late afternoon hours that slide into dusk on a summer's day.


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