In the epilogue to Henry IV, Part II, Shakespeare wrote: "If you be not too much cloy’d with fat meat, our humble author will continue the story with Sir John in it." That he did. At the command of Queen Elizabeth, "The Merry Wives of Windsor" was completed in 14 days. As Shakespeare’s plays go, "Wives" is a hack job. I won’t venture a guess whether another 14 days of honing the already hackneyed would have made much difference. Still the world has come to love this decidedly oddball assortment of second rate characters. It is good to know that good Queen Bess was pleased with the results of Shakespeare’s effort to show Sir John Falstaff in love. But she isn’t writing this review.
At any rate, a respectful, traditional, and pleasant enough representation of this awkward comedy has opened the season at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey. Despite the often dull and unfunny situations that confine this play to the basement of the Bard’s comedic canon, it will serve nicely enough as an entertainment seeker’s dalliance. There is, in fact, a fair amount of jovially spirited tomfoolery made manifest by a company that performs with spirit if not always with a consistency of style.
Without displacing the characters to a Wild West town, Little Italy, or the moon, I don’t know what else director Jason King Jones could have done to make the misadventures of this gross rogue more fun. Jones, who has built steadily and impressively on his credits at the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey over the past six years, guides "Wives" with assurance and an apparent conviction that the comedy stands firmly on its own conceits without tampering with time or place.
A little judicious pruning of the almost three-hour text, particularly the totally unnecessary tutorial scene between the Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans, winningly played by a brogue-propelled Ames Adamson, and the school boy, William (Joshua Herrigel, who admirably doubles as Robin, Sir John’s page), would have speeded things up. Certainly these inhabitants of an English country town – among them the scheming rapscallions, Pistol (David Foubert, who doubles as Doctor Caius), Nym (Chris Landis), and Bardolph (Brian Schilb) – are sent scurrying around our corpulent would-be-seducer like a group of avid voyeurs at an old time carnival peep show. And each one identified by the prescribed ticks and quirks.
In some respects, Sir John is both the over-bloated sideshow barker and the show himself. In "Wives," our garrulous gallant is a pitiable bloke and a boor. I appreciated Eric Hoffman for his slyly fraudulent Falstaff. Hoffman, also a veteran of six seasons at this theater and a Shakespearean instructor at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington, D.C., not only took command of the stage with his resonating bellowing, but added an indelible layer of poignancy to Sir John that could forever dismiss any preconceived notion we might have that the old fellow was ever a bore.
It would have been nice to take some secondary pleasure watching the pursuit of pretty Anne Page (Holley Fain) by the young Master Fenton (Chris Landis). But neither of these young actors seems able to affix the kind of lighthearted romanticism and lightheaded attitudes that would make their resistance to Anne’s matchmaking parents seem more a frivolous digression. I have hopes that Mistresses Ford and Page, played respectfully by Allison Daugherty and Randy Danson, may still broaden their performances with more deliberate exuberance as the run continues. But their portrayals do not yet appear either emboldened or energized enough, as they outfox the old lecher "well nigh worn to pieces with age."
More at ease in the comical vein is David Foubert, as the feisty and foppish French physician, Dr. Caius, who gets the most consistent laughs with his grandiose attitudinizing and playfully French-fried King’s English. Patrick Toon affects his role as the reluctant suitor, Slender, with an amusingly idiotic presence. Dana Smith-Croll appears to be pulling out all the shtick in her limited repertoire to embellish the otherwise Yenta-like Mistress Quickly. An instinctive farceur, James Michael Reilly is a blast in his insecure black mustache and wig, as Frank Ford, the jealous husband. The men generally out-performed the women with John Little, as George Page, and Robert Hock, as Justice Robert Shallow, also making notable contributions.
As a balance to the earfuls of prose, Maggie Dick’s period perfect and glorious costumes provide an eyeful of poetry. Set designer Brian Ruggaber has cleverly constructed the town of Windsor, and with the use of a turntable, the parts adjacent. The final Halloween-costumed scene at Windsor Park, in which Sir John gets his comeuppance, is quite a spectacle. It enables even the most resistant observers to respond more favorably to the entire bourgeois affair.
The Merry Wives of Windsor," through June 26, the Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey, at Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue, Madison. $27 to $49. 973-408-5600 or www.ShakespeareNJ.org.