A devious plot collapses in laughter
By Jana Eisenberg
From The Buffalo News, 7/29/08
Shakespeare in Delaware Park’s production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has a lot going for it. Director Steve Vaughan, with a hand both broad and precise, leaves no joke unexplored, no physical gesture underplayed, nor any insult subtly delivered. His actors are encouraged to thicken their accents and gambol, moon or roar with abandon, which they do.
The cast, with 17 in speaking roles and 10 or so in the supporting ensemble, is clearly having a great time in this show, which opened Friday after a one-day weather delay.
Vaughan also conveys the deeper meanings. A few of the Bard’s lessons: be happy with what you have; things may not be as they seem; Father does not always know best, etc.
Ken Shaw’s costumes strongly support these messages and the tone that is struck. The use of sheer fabric in many of the clothes leaves things both covered and exposed, but neither fully.
The slightly repetitive plot finds Sir John Falstaff (Norman Sham) hitting the town of Windsor, looking to remedy his financial woes. Falstaff’s dopey plan involves wooing two upper-class, married women, at the same time, with the same love letters.
The plan, of course, goes wrong, and the play becomes essentially a screwball comedy of comeuppance all around. In my book, this is a dish best eaten quickly; here, it is drawn out. And it is a lot of fun, though a tad overlong.
The wives of the title are Mistresses Ford (Susan Drozd), the saucier of the two, and Page (given a Kay Ballard/Eve Arden kind of turn by Beth Donahue). Once they discover Falstaff’s silly plan, they decide to take revenge on him. Not just twice, but three times, they trick him into a rendezvous and humiliate him instead.
Throughout are classic devices such as devious servants interfering in their masters’ devious plans, sending people to wrong locations, disguises, and hiding behind curtains and in laundry baskets. And, so there’s no mistaking it: tons and tons of jokes about weight and sex. When they are delivered in Elizabethan English, they are still funny, if, again, a bit repetitive.
Sham, naturally funny, gives us a Falstaff with a couple of revealing, Jackie Gleason-esque moments, where rueful self-awareness meets callow hope.
Paul Todaro, as Ford, one of the husbands, brings out a good deal of his physical comedy arsenal, roaring with rage, stomping on his hat and clenching fists in frustrated and murderously jealous intent.
The subplot, involving three suitors of Page’s lovely young daughter Anne (Anne Roaldi), is also a great source of amusement. Two of the men — her mother’s and father’s choices, Dr. Caius (Roger Keicher) and Slender (Steven Petersen) respectively — ridiculously and selfishly vie for her hand, while she has already made up her mind to marry the third (Zak Ward).
Jeffrey Coyle, as the genial and bemused Host of the local inn, and Chris Standardt, as Justice of the Peace Shallow, one of the (barely) cooler heads, provide nice counterpoint to some of the hijinks that go on.
Of course, all ends well. The mix-ups are unmixed, the conflicts un-conflicted and the whole party ends up laughing together rather than trying to kill one another.