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‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ at American Players: Shakespeare’s fat Falstaff and some lusty LOL

Submitted by on Aug 15, 2015 – 7:03 am

Falstaff (Brian Mani) hears an invitation from Mistress Quickly (Sarah Day) on behalf of Mistress Ford. (Liz Lauren)Review: “The Merry Wives of Windsor” by William Shakespeare, at American Players Theatre through Oct. 4. ★★★★

By Lawrence B. Johnson

SPRING GREEN, Wis. – If the delight of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” lies in the sparring between that fat, delusional romantic Sir John Falstaff and a raft of characters determined to rub his nose in reality, this broad comedy ultimately hangs on two hooks, and the rollicking outdoor production at American Players Theatre hilltop arena delivers them both.

Mistresses Alice Ford (Deborah Staples) and Margaret Page (Colleen Madden) receive identical love letters from Falstaff. (Liz Lauren)Brian Mani’s Falstaff is the epitome of the foolish knight who actually believes in his irresistible allure to women, and therefore is ever vulnerable to another humiliation. And David Daniel is a picture of sobriety gone off the rails as Master Ford, an upstanding village husband so sure he’s being cuckolded that he goes to mad lengths to out his suspect wife and the philandering Falstaff.

APT’s show, imbued with slapstick physicality by director Tim Ocel, is simply great fun – a skillfully and imaginatively wrought Elizabethan sitcom that’s exactly as deep as it appears on the surface. It plays throughout the summer and into early fall in this bucolic setting an easy three and a half hours’ drive northwest of Chicago.

The rap on “Merry Wives,” and the basis for its traditional downgrading to something less than Shakespeare’s best work, has been a perception of triviality and shallowness – a bagatelle tossed off (possibly) at the behest of Queen Elizabeth, who loved the portly, prevaricating Falstaff in both parts of “Henry IV” and prevailed upon the Bard to give Sir John a starring role.

Still, it is Shakespeare’s hand at play here, and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” exudes that distinctive wealth of wit and psychological insight cast in vibrant, resonant language. It is delectable farce, and Ocel’s smart cast goes all in to revivify characters we adore while infusing irresistible energy into every crazy moment we know is coming.

Sir John Falstaff (Brian Mani) cuts a rotund – he would add gallant – form. (Liz Lauren)Mani is a splendidly billowing Falstaff, pompous and bloviating, a great heap of guts (and I don’t mean courage) whose replenishing requires a steady stream of cash. That’s Falstaff’s real objective when he sends identical billets-doux to Mistresses Ford and Page. Through the hearts of these ladies lies the way to their husbands’ bank accounts.

But of course the two women (Deborah Staples as Alice Ford and Colleen Madden as Margaret Page) quickly spot Falstaff’s ruse and set about to catch him in his own trap. To teach the lesson well, they deliver it in painful terms and in several forms. Dear, vainglorious Falstaff – he just keeps taking the bait for more.

What makes these punishments so funny is their double edge. Whereas Master Page (James Ridge) hasn’t the least doubt of his wife’s virtue, Ford is convinced there’s corruption afoot and lays clever plans to reveal it, by catching wife and knight in the lists, as it were.

Daniel nearly steals the show from Mani in frantic, futile searches of his own home – at the head of a clutch of supporters who progressively view the exasperated husband as little more than paranoid. At the same time, the dodges provided for Falstaff by Mistresses Ford and Page cost the fat knight equal portions of suffering and shame. The night air at APT’s Up the Hill Theatre was rent by lusty laughter, early and often.

Master Ford (David Daniel) resorts to trickery in hope of trapping his wife with Falstaff, whose pal Pistol (Jeb Burris) observes. (Liz Lauren)The play’s subplot, concerning the Pages’ daughter Anne and the three characters  who aspire to marry her, is not one of Shakespeare’s more compelling sideshows. One of the marital aspirants, the ill-tempered middle-aged French Doctor Caius, offers an actor a shot at caricature, and Jonathan Smoots’ zany impersonation – complete with fractured English — pretty well pegged the ridiculous meter.

Sarah Day brings earthy appeal to Mistress Quickly, the go-between in the rendezvous schemes of Falstaff and his amorous objectives. And the old knights’ lowly collection of loyalists – Pistol, Nym and Bardolph – are ripely embodied in Jeb Burris, Chické Johnson and Wigasi Brant.

There’s a winning aura of community about this production, an easy charm underscored by Holly Payne’s costumes and Nathan Stuber’s flavorful set, which modulates readily between village scenes, Falstaff’s pub-cum-throne room and Mistress Ford’s very busy kitchen.

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