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Shakespeare’s best plots hinge on fantastical elements and convenient coincidences, from “Hamlet’s” ghosts and “Macbeth’s” witches to “Twelfth Night’s” ridiculous chance encounters between cross-dressing twins, separated by a shipwreck, who end up finding each other and true love. Despite baffling premises and changes in societal norms, humor, tragedy and universal themes of love, greed and jealousy keep Shakespeare relevant in the modern world.
Alas, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” does not stand the test of time quite as well as the Bard’s other plays despite heroic efforts by the Theater at Monmouth. Reportedly, Queen Elizabeth I commissioned the play as a way to keep the bumbling but beloved Sir John Falstaff of the Henry plays on stage. Shakespeare supposedly wrote it quickly, which shows.
Director Catherine Weidner made improvements by focusing on the feminist plot and by punching as much humor as possible into what many critics consider to be one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays. Still the premise is a bit hard to swallow in these modern times, even with Weidner’s witty choice to set the play in Windsor, Maine, circa 1948.
First published in 1602, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” features the bumbling Sir John Falstaff, an empty-pocketed gentleman con who concocts a suggestive and seductive letter sent to two middle class married women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. If the letter succeeds in winning his way into their hearts — or let’s be honest — beds, he hopes to win their husbands’ money as well.
Unbeknownst to Falstaff, the wives share and compare the same letter. After getting over the offensive and absurd suggestion that the happily married women would allow this man to ruin their lives, they plot to publicly humiliate Falstaff without letting their husbands in on the joke at first, lest the spouses come to the wrong conclusion.
Of course, wrong conclusions abound, this is Shakespeare, but — spoiler alert — the women win and Falstaff is shown for the fool he is.
Sounds incredibly sexist, right? Right. Ignore that.
There are three key reasons to see “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Theater at Monmouth. For one, Shakespeare fans who wish to see one of the lesser plays that is not produced very often should catch the last few shows before summer’s end. The theater was originally named The Shakespeare Theater of Maine, after all, and it has kept its reputation for delivering quality shows written by the Bard.
Secondly, Weidner gives the women, cast and characters, the majority of power. The dynamic duo of Amber Baldwin as Mistress Page and Caitlin Ort as Mistress Ford delight in delivering Falstaff his just desserts. Dressed in fabulous ‘40s outfits, the wives make merry as they wink wink, nudge nudge Falstaff into thinking he’s going to succeed in his seduction and securing finances.
Weidner also switched the gender of Host of the Garter in casting Caitlin Duffy, adding another female outwitting the men on stage. It becomes a battle of the sexes, the classes, and even a skirmish between young and old as Anne Page, daughter, fights her parents to earn the right to marry whom she chooses.
Thirdly, the lopsided battle of the sexes is presented with enough wit and slapstick humor to keep an audience entertained for the roughly two-plus hours that the hijinks play out on stage. Mercifully, Weidner cut about 45 minutes out of the script, doing so in ways that highlighted humor and merriment.
While the female actors rule the stage, the performance of Lawrence James also merits praise for a forceful yet nuanced portrayal of Mister Ford. Conversely, Robert Najarian strays a bit too far from Globe Theatre to Monty Python’s Flying Circus in his depiction of the French Dr. Caius. Theater at Monmouth stalwart Bill Van Horn adds just the right amount of ham to keep Falstaff fresh and salty.
Cumston Hall, The Theater at Monmouth’s beautiful historic home, poses a set design challenge, but the company largely overcomes the tight spaces with a colorful, creative concept. Keep an eye out for sight gags in the signage. A multipurpose door prop at times proves confusing, but it’s a quibble in an otherwise smart use of space that allows for frequent whirlwinds of stage action.
As should be the case with well-wrought stage productions, the finale of this version of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is the highlight. But credit goes to Weidner, not Shakespeare for the big finish. In the manner of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” she has the cast break out into a raucous song of her creation to settle scores and deliver the denouement. It’s a brilliantly clever touch to wrap up a production that puts girl power on full display in a manner that appropriately improves upon what could otherwise be described as a bad idea for a Shakespeare sequel.
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” runs in repertory through Aug. 17. For production dates and ticket information, visit theateratmonmouth.org