Shakespeare in the Park is back! And let me lay aside the critical monocle for a minute and say the experience of going to Merry Wives is entirely glorious. Even the heaviest summer sky is beautiful over the Delacorte. There is no audience as besotted as one that has gotten in for free. And then, of course, there is the relief that washes over each person there, as a much-missed civic ritual slots back into its seasonal groove. The sense of collective celebration in the theater the night I went was positively medieval: Afterward, had they asked us, I bet we could have raised a barn.
It’s not just release, though, that makes Merry Wives so buoyant. The production itself has been carefully chosen to feel like a vigorous leap upward: Merry Wives is the playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s farce The Merry Wives of Windsor, which she and director Saheem Ali have deftly shifted to a Ghanaian and Nigerian community in Harlem. It’s not the Public’s first all-Black cast in a Park Shakespeare — that would be Kenny Leon’s exquisite Much Ado About Nothing in 2019. But it is the first time (outside of musical adaptations) that the summer festival has so definitively cast aside conservative dramaturgy and invited a Black playwright to make the piece her own.
Beowulf Boritt’s clever set is a forced-perspective street corner: Citi Bike look-alikes are parked stage right, and the rest consists of brick buildings containing a clinic, a laundromat with an apartment above, and a hair-braiding salon. As in many a Park production, the show shifts into a kind of van Gogh rapture as the twilight fades into deep night, and the designers (Boritt and lighting designer Jiyoun Chang) focus our attention on the trees towering behind the stage. But for most of the play, the stretch of 116th Street is enough: a boulevard where local slacker Falstaff (Jacob Ming-Trent) can to try to gull the neighborhood’s well-to-do African immigrants, who turn the tables on him in increasingly absurd ways.
After they receive identical love letters from Falstaff, it takes maybe 30 seconds for the married ladies Madam Ford (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Madam Page (Pascale Armand) to take offense and — while their husbands fumble around with their own plans — to dream up a series of Falstaff-foiling plots. As these older folks try to stay out of one another’s arms, young Anne Page (Abena) and her suitors Slender (Joshua Echebiri), Doctor Caius (David Ryan Smith), and Fenton (MaYaa Boateng) do-si-do their way into the appropriate romantic formations. Connecting these narrative levels are the many foolish messengers, including Mama Quickly (Shola Adewusi) and Pastor Evans (Phillip James Brannon), who misdeliver letters, pick fights, hide in cupboards, and prevent the easy unspooling of each story line. Every tangle combs out in the end.
To get the evening down to an intermissionless hour and 50 minutes, Bioh has chucked one of Shakespeare’s subplots and a bushel of jokes about, among other things, Welsh pronunciation, heraldry, and Latin grammar. Her cuts, though, do not actually change the deeper structure, and in terms of the language, her additions always chime with elements already in the Shakespeare. Invitations to dinner involve roast goat; mentions of “sack” now refer to rum or palm wine. She tends to round off an original phrase with a modern line, so the “Nigerian Auntie” Mama Quickly says “Never a woman knows more of Anne’s mind than I do, nor can do more than I do with her, I thank heaven,” only to turn to the audience to roll her eyes about “these people.” Mama Quickly then checks her blood pressure because “they stress me too much, o!” Bioh’s adaptation contains a lot of Elizabethan text, but now it pulses differently: This one time in his life, Shakespeare wrote a whole play in prose, but Bioh’s interpolated West African “ohs” and “ehns” actually return the lines to the hopscotch rhythms of verse.
Bioh’s breakthrough was the hilarious School Girls; or The African Mean Girls Play, in which she displayed both a whipcrack wit and an ability to write a gaggle of girls simultaneously negotiating status, delivering gossip, and casting shade. Thus in Merry Wives, when she multiplies women (as she does by resexing Fenton or adding a distracted hair-braider who tuts at her tender-headed client), she welcomes us into her wheelhouse. There are guys in this show, but you can feel them being bustled away from your attention. We’re in this to hear the Real Housewives of Windsor invent increasingly elaborate insults, to wait while they leave the stage to change into fabulous outfits by Dede Ayite, and then to howl with laughter when they come back on to finish the heist. Bioh’s ear and the women’s skill is such that we would be happy never to leave Ford’s laundromat, where Watson and Armand crackle with invention and impatience, clearly ready to get Falstaff’s libido sorted out so they can go on to fix the world.
Not everything serves the farce. When the merry wives enter, they’re greeted with a theme song — they strut, pose, vamp. Falstaff gets Michael Thurber entrance music too, but Ali doesn’t follow through on the concept of the play as a sitcom. (Merry Wives would be great as a sitcom, to be clear. Add commercial breaks! A laugh track! Freeze-frame as the credits roll!) But Ali has picked up a gimmick only to abandon it, which is true of much of his underbaked direction here. And then there’s Jacob Ming-Trent’s Falstaff, who can seem too fragile to stand under the play’s deliberately collapsing comic edifice. The character is among Shakespeare’s best: He proved so delightfully roguish in Henry IV Queen Elizabeth herself demanded that he get a spinoff. Ming-Trent certainly has the right chops for that kind of Falstaff. We know this from The Forty-Year-Old Version and countless stage productions; we also know it from the a scene where he’s allowed to unleash his remarkable singing voice, a moment he lights up with briefly glimpsed, titanic charisma. It’s the adaptation and the production that hurt him: Bioh and Ali’s modernization shears away Falstaff’s context. He’s no longer a knight, no longer a rolling stone. Here, he’s just the poorest, loneliest guy in the neighborhood. Without the character’s lopsided grandeur — in the original, some of his boasts are real — the character can dwindle into being merely a handsy loser, the butt of a bunch of mean fat jokes. (Speaking of which, Ali has actors grab their genitals for sex jokes and the belly for fat jokes. This is never the right thing to do.)
The problems and the promise of this production’s particular Falstaff are exemplified by his bedroom. When a wall of Boritt’s street spins around to reveal a tiny apartment, we see it has pink-and-black zebra wallpaper and the accoutrements of a man who escapes into fantasy a lot — a television, a VR headset, a lightsaber. Over the bed is a blown-up print of what might have been an album cover 25 years ago: four Falstaffs, each in a Notorious B.I.G. style crown, the ’90s vibes rolling off it like smoke. FALSTAFF the poster says in a typewriter font, and DISCRETION/VALOR. On the one hand, the designers render a fantastically detailed idea of who this guy is. There’s a little traveling wave of laughter as people spot the Nietzsche on his bedside table or register his Poetic Justice T-shirt. This is a room to get baked in, to rest on old laurels in — as long as those laurels get you buzzed. The plot mechanics, though, need Falstaff to be always on the make, a grifter who looks forward, not back. Also, without the Shakespearian character’s shopworn glamour, Bioh’s chiller, milder, sweeter Falstaff becomes a little … pathetic. The jokes at his expense start to punch down, and the quieter Ming-Trent becomes, the more his gravity slows the scenes around him.
Every Shakespeare modernization comes at a cost. There will be a dozen ways in which changing the frame enriches the play and a handful of ways it wrenches the play out of true. Here, only the wives are made more merry. Happily, though, Elizabethan comedies knew what Mamma Mia! also does: You can fix any show by doing a dance at the end. The plot dissolves into sheer lunacy (in both senses of the word), as the whole company comes out to caper in a park in the moonlight — ostensibly to frighten Falstaff, but really just for the unleashed joy of taking over a public space. Does that dancing ever really stop? The show doesn’t end so much as it evanesces, the scene becoming a series of bows becoming a party, everyone changing into even more splendid costumes to say good night. Our spirits rise and rise and rise. There’s really only one thing that rings false at the end of the show: the way Armand and Watson bow before Ming-Trent, who is in star position. Shakespeare might have done it just that way, but in Bioh’s version we are certainly left thinking of them, their wit, their fire. These women are not supporting characters. Falstaff has been stealing scenes for hundreds of years — in Merry Wives, you meet the women who steal them back.
Merry Wives is at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park through September 18.