Loving theater is, without a doubt, an unhealthy relationship. Half the time you’re expecting too much of it; the other half, you’re making excuses for its shortcomings. But every once in awhile, a show comes along to remind you what theater actually is, in its purest form, and why it’s still worth switching off all electronic devices and squeezing into seats seemingly designed for hobbit yogis, all just to watch actors performing live on stage. This week (and this week only), the spectacular troupe from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is presenting just such a show, their delighted and delightful version of The Merry Wives of Windsor—which I highly prescribe as a kind of juice cleanse for the theatrically besotted, overdosed, and/or toxified. Employing no artificial sound, minimal effects lighting, and a simple wooden turntable set (to better approximate the Elizabethan limitations of the company’s home base, the reconstructed Globe in London), director Christopher Luscombe has successfully transformed a performance designed for “the Wooden O” into an aerodynamic road show. He relies solely on the rudiments: excellent staging, magnificent delivery and the superabundant talents of his jolly ensemble-who are clearly having a blast. I confidently predict you will, too.
As slim and wry as its protagonist is fat and cocksure, Merry Wives is said (probably apocryphally) to have been commissioned by Queen Elizabeth, who was so devastated by the offstage demise of Sir John Falstaff in Henry V that she ordered him resurrected in a love comedy. It was written in haste and under duress, detractors say. Merry Wives is the Rodney Dangerfield of Shakespearean comedies: Harold Bloom famously excoriated it as “a scabrous exercise in sadomasochism” featuring an “impostor” standing in for his beloved Sir John. But this is, let’s not forget, paleo-popular culture’s first true spinoff—and, on balance, even the most grudging critic would have to admit it’s more Frasier than Joey. (Another weighty historical footnote: Merry Wives contains what might be the first intimation of a threesome in English literature: “Divide me like a bribed duck, each a haunch!” crows Falstaff, bouncing a lady on each leg.) That’s how the gentles of the Globe approach the show—as pure madcap entertainment, vulgarity of the highest refinement.
Christopher Benjamin’s Sir John, sporting a belly rig that jounces libidinously ahead of him like a strap-on ego, is nothing less than a walking special effect. If the Falstaff reincarnated in Merry Wives is indeed more cartoon than tragicomic titan, Benjamin has embraced the buffoonery and ennobled it, with commitment alone. His Falstaff is a distinctly physical creation: He practically puppeteers himself around the stage, making clumsy attempts to bed (and then borrow from) a pair of rich married ladies, Mistress Page (Serena Evans) and Mistress Ford (Sarah Woodward). “They shall be my East and West Indies,” brags Falstaff, “and I shall trade to them both.” The ladies in question quickly learn of his designs, and hatch their own stratagem to humiliate him. Meanwhile, Mister Ford (Andrew Havill), a jealous type, ties himself in knots over his wife’s (totally imagined) infidelity, and plots his own confrontation with Falstaff. The joke, of course, is that Falstaff is no threat: He’s mere transparent masculine appetite. Even at his most egregious, he’s always carefully circumscribed and safely contained by a retinue of clever women. (This, I suspect, may be the real source of Bloom’s gut reaction to the show: It’s a sixteenth-century YouTube parody of the Henry plays, right down to the French jokes, the funny-talking Welsh clown, the mostly male cosmology, and the “imaginary puissance.”) Meanwhile, real normative challenges are happening further down the bill, as the hand of a bourgeois daughter (Ceri-Lynn Cissone) is being contested by three vastly different, lavishly caricatured suitors: a foppish rube (William Belchambers), a hot-tempered French doctor (Philip Bird), and young gentleman (Gerard McCarthy).
But to be clear, nothing is ever seriously at stake in Merry Wives, nor does it need to be, neither in this particular play nor in this production. There are no ruminations on class and gender rumbling in the ample belly of Luscombe’s simple vision. It’s a series of comic masques, executed brilliantly. Evans and Woodward, playing the wives with unforced, puckish alacrity, exhibit the comic timing of a skilled vaudeville team. Havill, as the self-tormented husband Ford, performs a straitjacketed tap dance of ever-tightening anxiety that would make Phil Silvers weep tears of joy and jealousy. In secondary roles, Gareth Armstrong (as the speech-impeded Welsh cleric, Sir Hugh Evans) and Belchambers, bearing the fop ruff, elicit primary laughs. (Even the har-har homo-funny stuff feels classy here. Goddamn English accents!)
So absolutely go, enjoy, renew your vows with theater. There’s nothing dutiful or difficult here—only that most difficult thing of all, the unreserved glory of an inspired stage production.
The Merry Wives of Windsor runs through November 7 at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Performing Arts at Pace University, as part of the Shakespeare at Pace series.