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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the August 6, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

`Merry Wives of (West) Windsor’

Four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare wrote a

play he was sure would set all London laughing. "The Merry Wives

of Windsor," the Bard’s only comedy set solely in England, features

more prose than verse, much of it in colloquial dialogue. There are

topical references to the goings on of city and court, and a couple

of foreign buffoons thrown in to bear the brunt of the English humor.

Now the Princeton Rep Company has taken up Shakespeare’s populist

cause with its own, authentic but updated "Merry Wives of (West)

Windsor," where the eponymous West Windsor — as well as Princeton

and Central Jersey — takes center stage. This entertaining production,

directed by Victoria Liberatori, is presented at the Pettoranello

Gardens Amphitheater, Fridays through Sundays at 8 p.m to August 17.

There is an additional free performance on the Green at Palmer Square

this Saturday, August 9, at 2 p.m.

Spotlighting both virtues and vices of its chosen locale, the production

was initially greeted by returning rains that washed out both dress

rehearsal and preview (July 31 and August 1). But when the first preview

finally took place on Saturday, August 2, it was under ideal conditions:

a warm (but not too warm) summer evening under the stars, with the

first cicadas audible in the woods, and our Garden State mosquitoes

nowhere in evidence. This is the second comedy of the company’s third

full summer season, following on the heels of July’s "The Comedy

of Errors."

"The Merry Wives" tells the story of Sir John Falstaff’s persistent

and unsuccessful wooing of two genteel wives of West Windsor —

Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. Although the ostensive topic is "Falstaff

in love," the old lush aims to use the lovely women as a pathway,

not to love, but for access to their husbands’ substantial bank accounts.

Setting the tone and preparing its audience for this "Merry Wives’"

torrent of targeted insider jokes is Tim Amrhein’s set design that

includes a perfect replica of the platform of Princeton Junction train

station, parts of the Nassau Inn Tap Room, and a set of smart pastel-colored

townhouses in our own West Windsor. Pam Hersh of Princeton University

was the first celebrity guest to appear on the station platform amidst

the hubbub of a morning commute, followed on Sunday night by Mayor

Shing-fu Hsueh of West Windsor. Mayors Phyllis Marchand and Marvin

Reed, and other area notables are slated for cameo appearances.

Marking the pulse of commuter life in Central New Jersey

is Marty Moss-Coane of the WHYY’s "Radio Times." Moss-Coane’s

witty voice-overs, written by John Timpane, serve as scene transitions

as well as keeping Shakespeare’s "Windsor" setting up-to-date

and close to home. Some of her funnier topics include ongoing "Town

and Gown" arguments such as "When am I in West Windsor and

when am I in Princeton?" and the question of "Smart or Beautiful?"

in which she promotes interviews with some of Princeton’s "homely

smart people" and "the beautiful dummies from town."

The young and decidedly corpulent Dennis McLaughlin plays this modern

bearded Falstaff (whom Shakespeare describes as "the old fat fellow"

and "Flemish drunkard"), a latter-day theatrical producer.

Hanging out at the Nassau Inn and planning his next big budget show,

"Cape May 08204," we know that few, if any, upscale West Windsor

wives will fix on him as their love interest.

The Windsor Wives who are the target of Falstaff’s scheme, Mistresses

Alice Ford and Meg Page, are well-played by Nell Gwynn and Victoria

Stilwell. These smart women know the score and change outfits at every

opportunity, from chic silk Capri pants to shorts and visors for their

fitness power walks.

Although the duo has matters in hand, their out-of-touch husbands

manage to complicate the plot. The insanely jealous Master Frank Ford

(Donald Kimmel) suspects his wife of every dark deed, while the cynical

George Page (Van Zeiler) is preoccupied with his desire to see his

daughter wedded to a rich, well-landed idiot. Some of the funniest

scenes feature Kimmel as the jealous Ford going undercover, disguised

as the nerdish Master Brook, to catch the lecherous braggart Falstaff

red-handed.

Page’s eligible daughter, Anne Page, nicely portrayed by Karen Freer,

is the object of almost every male character’s desire. She is the

sort of smart and spunky young woman any Jersey family would consider

an asset. Anne’s most ardent suitor is Master Fenton (Michael Sorvino),

a Princeton graduate who sports a black and orange silk tie.

Most effective in their scenes of broad humor are Richard Bourg as

Robert Shallow, judge and justice of the peace, and his clueless nephew

Abraham Slender, played with endearing expressivity by the tall, slender,

Chihuahua-toting actor Christopher Franciosa. Bourg, last season’s

King Lear, offers a contrasting comic side in his role as Shallow,

justice of the County of Gloucester (this critic’s former legal residence).

Appearing here as a Justice of the Peace of the County of Mercer,

he arrives on the scene, with nephew in tow, and the complaint that

Falstaff has "beaten my men, killed my deer, and broken open my

lodge."

Among the play’s more clownish of the characters are the parson Sir

Hugh Evans-Wiswesser (Dan Matisa), here smartly transformed from the

Welsh character of the original (lose the Welsh jokes!) to a stock

German. His companion is the phlegmatic and utterly nutty French physician,

Doctor Caius (Jeffrey Guyton) — what better moment to make hay

with some of those funny 400-year-old French jokes.

Princeton Rep’s strategy of placing Equity actors in lead roles with

other professionals and actors-in-training in supporting roles makes

for a dynamic but sometimes uneven performing standard. The numerous

company includes Falstaff’s trio of henchmen (here called "associates"),

Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym played by Matthew Morgan, Henning Hegland,

and Chuck McMahon, and nephew Robin (Kelly Forman).

Go-between Mistress Quickly (Carolyn Smith) is a key

character who plays all sides of the fence, pocketing bribes and favors

from all concerned, while working to win Anne’s hand for her own employer,

Doctor Caius. Matthew Morgan plays the madcap host of the Garter Room

at the Nassau Inn, a familiar-looking bar hung with photos of notables

Bill Bradley, Brooke Shields, Jimmy Stewart, and smiling Princeton

commencement speaker Bill Clinton.

Since Shakespeare chose deer as one of his play’s recurrent themes,

Liberatori effortlessly moves the climactic scene from Windsor Forest

to the imperiled Mercer Oak. And instead of being frightened out of

his lecherous ways by a band of woodland sprites, Falstaff finds himself

facing the same awful fate as Princeton’s resident deer.

As the tortured plot winds to a close, spouses, rivals, enemies, and

lovers are reconciled just as Shakespeare determined they should be.

The play closes with his cautionary remark, probably as helpful today

as it was four centuries ago: "Money buys lands, and wives are

sold by fate."

— Nicole Plett

The Merry Wives of (West) Windsor, Princeton Rep,

Pettoranello Amphitheater, Community Park North, Route 206 at Mountain

Avenue, 609-921-3682. Free; $10 donation requested. Fridays, Saturdays,

and Sundays at 8 p.m. through Sunday, August 17.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Princeton Rep, On the Green,

Palmer Square, 609-921-3682. Free performance on the green. Picnics

available for sale. Saturday, August 9, 2 p.


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