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The Unthin Man

A Roomy Falstaff Bogs Down An Otherwise Sharp Shakespearean Farce

KINDA PHAT: Lewis Shaw comes to grips with Allison Lamb in Merry Wives Of Windsor.

By Anna Ditkoff | Posted 7/13/2005

Merry Wives of Windsor By William Shakespeare

Baltimore Shakespeare Festival at Evergreen House through July 24

Opening nights are rarely a play’s best performance. There are always kinks to work out, the added pressure of a live audience to deal with, and, in the case of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival’s Merry Wives of Windsor, a sinkhole. The curtain rose late at the July 8 opening because several actors were stuck in a traffic jam caused by a sinkhole on the B-W Parkway. It’s probably hard to get into a Shakespearean farce after a near-death experience and bumper-to-bumper traffic, which might explain the play’s stop-and-go feel.

Legend has it that after seeing Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I, Queen Elizabeth was so enamored by the mischievous Falstaff that she asked Shakespeare to write a play about him in love, to which Shakespeare complied in his own way. Merry Wives certainly follows the romantic machinations of the obese and amoral Sir John Falstaff, but the only character he truly has any affection for is himself. Falstaff decides to seduce two married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, so he can have their husbands’ money. He forgets that female friends compare notes about guys, though, and in this case quite literally.

To get back at Falstaff for giving them both the exact same love letter, mistresses Ford and Page lead him on while putting him in a series of horrible situations to avoid detection—making him hide in a wagon filled with dirty laundry, dressing him up like an old woman who gets beaten as a witch, and fairy pinchings. Meanwhile, the women’s husbands have heard what Falstaff is up to. Page is unfazed. Ford goes crazy with jealousy and, for reasons that could only make sense to his therapist, ends up disguising himself and paying Falstaff to seduce his wife. If that weren’t complicated enough, Page’s daughter Anne has three men seeking her hand in marriage, one her dad likes, one her mom likes, and one she likes. All these plots come together to create an absurd Elizabethan Three’s Company episode.

Though the BSF production embraces the plot’s craziest notions, for every triumph a misstep keeps it from soaring. Jessica Sherlock’s multilevel Tudor inn set is charming among the Evergreen House’s foliage, but the decision to move the stage from the center of the field to the corner makes the great outdoors feel strangely cramped. Director Drew Kahl, the text and voice coach for BSF’s 2004 The Tempest production, coaxes some great deliveries out of his actors, getting the humor and meaning out of lines that other directors would have considered throwaways. His staging isn’t as impressive, however. Periods of frantic slapstick alternate with painfully static scenes, and every time the show accrues momentum Kahl slams on the brakes.

Falstaff, the character who should hold this play together, is the one slowing things down. Lewis Shaw looks trapped in this character: Not a small man, Shaw is put in a fat suit that leaves him looking like a pantaloon-clad Stay-Puft marshmallow man moving with the attendant grace. His movements are so labored that he spends most of his time seated while other characters revolve around him.

Fortunately, some great performances keep the play moving. Bruce Nelson walks—and in some scenes, limps—away with the show as the increasingly loony Ford; his jealousy-fueled madness becomes the play’s most compelling plot line. Allison Lamb’s Mistress Ford and Sarah Wiggin’s Mistress Page have a nice conspiratorial chemistry. Kelly Tuohy’s Anne, along with Matthew Charles as Anne’s preferred suitor, Fenton, give the play a heart and a brief but welcome grounding in reality. And perennially underutilized BSF workhorse Dana Whipkey puts in another fine performance as the creepy clergyman Sir Hugh, gamely playing off both Thomas Brown’s pleasantly understated Justice Shallow and Gregory Stuart’s entertainingly exaggerated turn as freaky Frenchman Dr. Caius.

All of this adds up to an enjoyable production, but not a must see. Part of the problem may have been due to the inauspicious opening night, but some of the show’s shortcomings are due to Shaw’s foam-rubber prison. While we are big supporters of loving yourself just the way you are, we really think BSF’s Merry Wives of Windsor has a better chance to live up to its name if Falstaff shed a few pounds.

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