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The Merry Wives of Windsor

There's no better remedy for a so-called secondary Shakespearean play than an impeccably conceived and perfectly cast production, as is the case with noted company member David Ivers' Denver Center Theatre Company directorial debut, proving once again that there are no problem plays in the canon, only misconceived and malnourished efforts.

Brian Keith Russell as Sir John Falstaff
Brian Keith Russell
as Sir John Falstaff
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Ivers, whose acting skills have made him a local favorite, applies his formidable imagination to a story that lies somewhere in-between the slapstick commedia of The Comedy of Errors and the brooding satire of Measure for Measure.

Fortified by the tremendous depth of the company, the production breezily unfolds the complex interrelationships between as odd a group of characters as one finds in Shakespeare, many of them having appeared in other plays.

Kathleen M. Brady as Mistress Quickly and Brian Keith Russell as Sir John Falstaff
Kathleen M. Brady as Mistress Quickly
and Brian Keith Russell as Sir John Falstaff
Photo: Terry Shapiro



At the forefront of this ecclectic ensemble is Falstaff, notorious for his bad influence on Prince Hal in the Henry IV histories. Mythology has it that it was Queen Elizabeth who requested a story of Sir John Falstaff in love, but this notion was likely fabricated over one hundred years after the fact by a playwright (John Dennis) seeking to drum up an audience for his ill-advised adaptation of this piece.

If there is a wisp of truth in such a myth, it is more likely in Elizabeth's fondness for what Falstaff represents, a knight errant (roughly based on Sir John Oldcastle) central to the Protestant revisionism of English history. For those familiar with the Oxfordian perspective on the authorship question, this slant is rife throughout "William Shake-speare's" (one of the pen names of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford) histories, including reinventions of the contributions of his ancestors.

(Left to right) Sharon Washington as Mistress Page (in window), Kathleen McCall as Mistress Ford and Brian Keith Russell as Sir John Falstaff
(L to R) Sharon Washington
as Mistress Page (in window),
Kathleen McCall as Mistress Ford, and
Brian Keith Russell as Sir John Falstaff
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Given that this is a Falstaff fallen from favor, no longer privy to the court, he is necessarily not as full of bluster as we find him elsewhere; nevertheless, Brian Keith Russell mines the subtleties of the text as if there were no such restrictions, revealing the realist beneath the Dionysian demeanor. Russell's natural, assured approach lends genuine mirth to the big man's egotism, matching his considerable girth. Once Russell establishes Falstaff's self-possessed largesse, our disbelief suspended, we have no trouble accepting that Sir John could hold the absurd notion that the comely title heroines of the story are interested in him as a lover.

(Left to right) Sharon Washington as Mistress Page and Kathleen McCall as Mistress Ford
(L to R) Sharon Washington as Mistress Page
and Kathleen McCall as Mistress Ford
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Besides themselves with glee, Kathleen McCall and Sharon Washington, as Mistresses Ford and Page, are indeed The Merry Wives of Windsor—enjoying the fruits of their husbands' labors, with plenty of leasure time for shopping and cooking up schemes—effortlessly making fools of Falstaff and their husbands alike.

As we've seen elsewhere throughout the canon—principally in Othello, Much Ado About Nothing, The Winter's Tale, and Cymbaline—the playwright's obsession with cuckoldry inevitably comes to the fore, just as it did in his own life.

(Left to right) John Hutton as Ford and Brian Keith Russell as Sir John Falstaff
(L to R) John Hutton as Ford and
Brian Keith Russell as Sir John Falstaff
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Here, it is Ford as the stand-in for the adult de Vere, convincing himself of his wife's unfaithfulness based on a thin serving of circumstantial evidence. In his most inventive comedic role to date, John Hutton tackles jealously head on, fully committed to Ford's accusations and, eventually, his apologies.

John Livingstone Rolle, as Page, provides a jovial, unconcerned counterpoint to the suspicious Ford, sporting about in his tennis whites. Yes, you heard that right. Ivers uses the uptempo rhythms of the Roaring Twenties to drive the comedy forward, fortified with healthy servings of hot period jazz.

(Left to right) Michael Santo as Doctor Caius and Philip Pleasants as Sir Hugh Evans
(L to R) Michael Santo as Doctor Caius
and Philip Pleasants as Sir Hugh Evans
Photo: Terry Shapiro
But infidelity is only one of the biographical threads woven into the fabric of this story. The Elizabethan court would be familiar with a number of other characters who resurface from other plays, including Dr. Caius, Elizabeth's court physician whom de Vere likely first met when he visited Cambridge at the age of eight. Caius was also an alias for the Earl of Kent during his exile in King Lear. Michael Santo plays him as a French dandy with an over-the-top accent crowned with an absurd toupee. Talk about chewing the scenery! Steve Martin couldn't have done this better.

De Vere's ongoing enmity with Sir Philip Sidney (Aguecheek in Twelfth Night; Michael Cassio in Othello) here takes the form of Slender, a self-possessed, supercilious courtier who vied with de Vere for the hand of Anne Cecil (Anne Page in this play). Jeffrey Evan Thomas captures Slender's obliviousness to his perfectly hollow imitation of engagement.

(Left to right) Randy Moore as Shallow, Philip Pleasants as Sir Hugh Evans and Jeffrey Evan Thomas as Slender
(L to R) Randy Moore as Shallow,
Philip Pleasants as Sir Hugh Evans,
and Jeffrey Evan Thomas as Slender
Photo: Terry Shapiro
As in real life, where Sydney's uncle lobbied on his behalf for Anne's hand, so here we have the solicitor Shallow (the stand-in for Lord Robert Dudley), Slender's uncle, doing the bargaining, vying for the lass' substantial dowry. Randy Moore shows everyone what scansion is all about in his prickly take on this quintessential bourgeous money grubber. Shallow's ecclesiastical parallel, Sir Hugh Evans, is embodied with equal relish by Philip Pleasants. It's worth noting that these three unflattering depictions of the pillars of bourgeois society (Caius, Shallow, and Evans—doctor, lawyer, and priest) presage Molière's later razor-sharp satires devoted entirely to these subjects.

While Page prefers Slender for his daughter's hand and Mistress Page prefers Caius, Anne—a strong-willed, radiant Kwana Martinez—prefers Fenton, a stalwart Mat Hostetler. Kathleen M. Brady's meddling and muddled Mistress Quickly keeps all the suitors and their sponsors off balance.

Kwana Martinez as Anne Page and Mat Hostetler as Fenton
Kwana Martinez as Anne Page
and Mat Hostetler as Fenton
Photo: Terry Shapiro
Fenton, luckily has an ally in the Host of the Garter Inn (a smooth fixer in the hands of Tyee Tilghman), who facilitates a timely rendezvous of the lovers, thus ending this comedy, not only with the required happy marriage, and a reconciliation between the Fords, but, in Iver's clever version, a fitting solution for Falstaff as well.

Using a newly-installed computer-controlled system, Hugh Landwehr's scenic design transports us from the middle-class suburban environs of Windsor to the public house of Falstaff's Garter Inn and finally to the magical woods of Windsor Park, impressively enhancing the physcial scope of the play. David Kay Mickelson's costumes take full advantage of the period's impressive spectrum of fashion statements.

The Denver Center Theatre Company's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor runs through April 19th. 303-893-4100.

 

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