Serendipity is not prophecy. Playwright and director Aaron Posner could not have known Virginia would finally ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, approved by Congress in 1972 but mostly dormant since the early 1980s, last year when he decided to set his new Merry Wives of Windsor in the polyester age of 1972. But as things shook out, Posner has young Anne Page (Linda Bard)—a lady whose mother and father each have a preferred suitor for her, neither of them the man with whom she has fallen in love—carrying an “ERA Now!” sign in a show that opened just days after the Virginia legislature’s historic vote. Good for him.
Even in the bustling context of this eager-to-please production, this registers at least as much as a governing theme as it does a smart piece of prop work, one that’s of a piece with Tony Cisek’s TV-studio-styled set (illuminated geometric panels, exposed astroturf) and Devon Painter’s vibrant, way-out costumes (loud prints, big lapels, decorative sunglasses, exposed chest hair). But in fact, Merry Wives wears its latter-day feminist reading more comfortably than many other Shakespeare works, concerning as it does an unsuccessful attempt by a dissolute specimen of a man—the swollen drunk Sir John Falstaff (a loud and well padded Brian Mani)—to seduce and extort two smart and disciplined women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford (Regina Aquino and Ami Brabson, respectively). Their wealth and status in Windsor come from the fact they’re both married to prominent men, but you can’t have everything.
If you believe the legend, our man Will wrote The Merry Wives at the command of Queen Elizabeth, who told him she wanted to see that fun-loving old drunk Falstaff in love. The shaggy play with which Shakespeare obliged her didn’t even fulfill that mandate: Falstaff’s motives here are purley fiscal, not carnal. Mani, who is gargling with whiskey when we meet him, makes Falstaff an arresting subject all the same, and it’s nice to see someone slightly unfamiliar to the Folger stage take up so much space in a Posner Shakespeare. The same goes for Louis E. Davis in the role of Mine Host, who contributes a disproportionate share of the evening’s laughter and warmth.
Elsewhere, Posner has once again cast a number of his favorite actors, ringers all: Cody Nickell adopts an over-the-top-of-the-top French accent for his Dr. Caius, one of the men competing to marry Anne. The sight of his rival for her hand, Abraham Slender (Brian Reisman), sets him literally trembling with rage. It’s a visual gag worth reprising, and reprised it gets. Kate Eastwood Norris gives Mistress Quickly a Midwestern pattern of speech that suits the character’s unrewarded people-pleasing. No one knows better than she does how to deliver an aside; having her tell Caius, her employer, to pay her no mind when he overhears her addressing the audience doesn’t necessarily make the moment funnier, but it’s in keeping with the production’s Love, American Style vibe. There’s a smoother variation on this gag later, when Slender overhears Mistress Page lament that he, her husband’s choice for a son-in-a-law, is a fool. Wounded, he puts down the piece of the set he’s moving and slinks offstage. It’s a good meta joke that doesn’t take any more time than it warrants, and it hints at the more effervescent version of this Merry Wives that might’ve emerged had it been staged sans intermission. This is a play where Shakespeare repeats almost every joke and incident, so it’s hard to fault a director for following suit.
Another thing Posner also could not have known is that Eric Hissom, the superb actor he has directed in many plays at the Folger and elsewhere, would fall ill and be unable to perform the pivotal role of Mr. Ford on press night. Ryan Sellers, Hissom’s understudy, went on in his place and acquitted himself admirably. He’s visibly younger than Hissom and than Brabson, who plays his spouse—a union that on this particular night appeared intergenerational as well as interracial. Good for him.
To March 3 at 201 East Capitol St. SE. $27–$85. (202) 544-7077. folger.edu.
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