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With Sir John Falstaff as an overstuffed delight, CST romps in ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’

Submitted by on Jan 4, 2014 – 4:36 pm

Mistresses Ford (Heidi Kettenring, left) and Page (Kelli Fox) with the antlered Falstaff (Scott Jaeck) at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. (Liz Lauren)Review: “The Merry Wives of Windsor” by William Shakespeare, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater through Jan. 19. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

You never know what pared-down, free-wheeling adaptation of Shakespeare you’re going to get at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. But even for CST, its 1940s setting of “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” complete with a musical track of period pop tunes, takes fast-and-loose into a new dimension. It’s also a complete delight. 

Mistresses Ford (Heidi Kettenring, left) and Page hide Falstaff (Scott Jaeck) in a laundry hamper in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.' (Liz Lauren)“Merry Wives,” probably mid-career Shakespeare and penned soon after two other comedies, “Twelfth Night” and “As You Like It,” is traditionally said to be a royally commanded reappearance of fat Jack Falstaff, whose displays of unmitigated vanity, gluttony and mendacity in Shakespeare’s two Henry IV plays so charmed Queen Elizabeth that she prevailed upon the Bard to give the old boy a sitcom of his own.

Thus we find a familiar Falstaff in “Merry Wives”: delusional, unenlightened and unredeemed, still swilling “sack” (cheap sherry), dodging his creditors and now mapping a course of lechery that he believes will lead him to the further comforts of wealth. And just as Prince Hal toys with this puffed-up old fool in “Henry IV,” so do two wives of Windsor – best friends and objects of Falstaff’s carnal ambitions – lead him to a severe comeuppance.

Master Ford (Ross Lehman, left) is diguised as Master Brook to trick Falstaff (Scott Jaeck) in 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.' (Liz Lauren)Director Barbara Gaines has updated “Merry Wives” to mid-1940s Windsor, where we first meet portly Sir John Falstaff – the expansive and supremely self-assured Scott Jaeck — in his army uniform, a monumental presence in the town square, dismissing those with plaints against him and plotting his assault on the fair wives of Master Ford and Master Page.

But when Mistress Ford (Heidi Kettenring) and Mistress Page (Kelli Fox) discover they have received identical billets-doux from Falstaff, they set about to teach this billowing Don Juan a lesson.

Kettenring and Fox make a winning pair as matrons who must walk a marital tight rope as they lure Falstaff into hilarious traps without their husbands being the wiser. The play’s iconic scene, of the suspicious Ford (Ross Lehman in a deliciously tormented performance) crashing his own home and the frantic wives hurrying terrified Falstaff into a laundry basket, is outrageously funny and indeed leaves one feeling compassion for the basket’s contents – which promptly get dumped into the river.

Jealous Master Ford (Ross Lehman, right) fervently warns Master Page (Kevin Gudahl) about the lecherous Falstaff. (Liz Lauren)Jaeck is irresistible as the seemingly unteachable, libido-blinded Falstaff. The “fool me once” adage just doesn’t apply here. Scarcely has Falstaff dried out from his dunking when he succumbs to the ladies’ lure of a second tryst. Vanity also prompts this reprobate to swallow the hook when Ford, disguised as a man hoping to gain access to Mistress Ford, appeals to Falstaff to break down the lady’s virtue and pave the way. The farcical exchange between Lehman’s inveigling Ford and Jaeck’s supremely assuring Falstaff produces one of the show’s brightest moments.

As Master Page, Kevin Gudahl provides a sympathetic straight man to Lehman’s apoplectic Ford, and Angela Ingersoll’s Mistress Quickly offers a worldly-wise go-between in Falstaff’s amorous games with the ladies. In a performance that underscores the principle that there are no small parts, Steven Sutcliffe brings a sweetly comic pathos to Slender, a shy lad being pushed into marrying Master Page’s daughter Anne (Tiffany Yvonne Cox), who doesn’t want him anyway. On the town square, as others fervently assess Slender’s marriage prospects, Sutcliffe’s befuddled young man retreats from the group to go window shopping – one of many deft directorial touches by Barbara Gaines.

The updating of “Merry Wives” works wonderfully well, notwithstanding some added expletives and other expostulations and asides not found in the Bard’s text. The peppering of ‘40s songs – all that’s missing is “The Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B” – lends the show a palpable air of authenticity. There’s also a credible camaraderie among the characters, and the combination of James Noone’s detailed, intimately habitable sets with Susan E. Mickey’s stylish costumes tops it off. Loved the frisky village dogs, too.

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