Falstaff is the original dirty old man. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare unsparingly ridicules old Sir John's simultaneous amorous pursuits of two married women. But he also preserves our sympathy for him. As the only play set in the England of his own day, Merry Wives gives us our best window into the barely exaggerated foibles of the Bard of Avon's middle class neighbors, his family, and probably himself.
This "Moft pleafaunt and excellent conceited Comedie" as it was described in its first published version, anticipates today's TV sit-coms, and is ripe for a contemporized theatrical treatment. But the London-based Shakespeare's Globe Theatre entertains no such revisionist notions in the charmingly old-fashioned touring production that opened Friday and runs for ten days at Santa Monica's Broad Stage.
The emphasis is on broadly drawn characterizations that confirm time-honored conventions of the fat knight and his retinue. It is brought here by the company that recreated the outdoor Elizabethan theatre by the Thames some years ago to present plays in the manner enjoyed by its first audiences. Given the seductive frothiness of this Merry Wives, one cannot argue with their approach.
Christopher Benjamin's Falstaff is, however, no stereotypical rotundity à la Orson Welles. His is a surprisingly thin-legged erring knight-errant, admittedly heavy of paunch, but also with the aquiline nose and glinting blue eyes of a true aristocrat, if more than past his prime and short on scruples. Still nicely attired for a man down in his chips, this Falstaff's sartorial splendor contrasts sharply with the one seen this past summer in Henry IV, Part I at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. That rag-tag, fly-encircled debaucher possessed a decidedly bad humor entirely lacking in this merry Falstaff. Hope springs infernal for this swain to whom ladies supposedly give "the leer of invitation." His three-times-frustrated amorous pursuits pose but momentary setbacks, impervious as he is to humiliation. We can't help admiring the naughty old coot.
Controlling the play's pacing are the colluding wives pursued by Falstaff, Mistresses Page (Serena Evans) and Ford (Sarah Woodward), who manage to impose their wills as easily as the levelheaded mothers on the TV screens of our youths. Their version of a secret handshake by itself earns the two actresses their eponymous roles. Messrs, Ford (Michael Garner) and Page (Andrew Havill) are as ineffectual at channeling their offspring or controlling their spouses as any father or husband today. Havill's blond wig disguise as 'Brook' amusingly leavens his unfounded rage at being cuckolded.
Ceri-Lyn Cissone's Anne Page is all adolescent purity and calm determination with a pretty singing voice adding to her charm. Gerard McCarthy is her attractive and eventually successful suitor, Fenton.
Supporting characters are giggle-inducing eye and ear candy. Will Belchambers' pale green and red-trimmed Slender conveys a leggy effeminacy tailored to the ambiguously written dialogue of his character. Sue Wallace's busybody Mistress Quickly is the perfect plotter; Gareth Armstrong's Welsh Parson Evans is convincingly fortified with God until challenged to a duel; and Philip Bird's Dr. Caius is full of pun-laden put-downs at the expense of the French language. Various servants, pages, and others hold up the honor of English-trained actors everywhere.
Christopher Luscombe's direction keeps the action moving along and he has nicely etched his characters and their encounters. He is aided by Janet Bird's colorful period costumes and efficient set, the latter an elevated square platform with a rotating ring for outdoor promenading and an inner rotating circle with a narrow vertical rise for two sides of indoor locations. On the balcony above sit five versatile musicians who provide occasional mood elevations to the action in composer Nigel Hess' clever pseudo-Elizabethan score.
The only drawback of this production is an occupational hazard of touring companies. The acoustics of The Broad Stage's gorgeous jewel-box theater have not yet been fully adjusted to the actors' voice projections. There is a pronounced sweet spot at the dead-center middle of the stage that, when approached, throws the volume of the voices into overdrive as if amplified. This and the general tendency of the hall to project vowel tones over consonant articulations occasionally obscure Shakespeare's fast-paced language, as do the musical instruments when they accompany speaking voices.
The laugh-a-minute confection of Shakespeare's Merry Wives imposes no lasting consequences for the serial transgressions of social mores. Falstaff picks himself up after embarrassment and is invited back to town.
Like many a sit-com, the play's giddy conceit is really about nothing substantial at all. One could imagine, if time were no object, that Shakespeare and Seinfeld might shake hands on The Broad Stage as kindred comic spirits.
Merry Wives runs this week (except Tuesday) on October 18, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 at various times. See www.TheBroadStage.com or call 310.434.3200. The Broad Stage is located at 1310 - 11th Street, Santa Monica. Parking is free.
Rodney Punt can be reached at Rodney@artspacifica.net