Downton Shabby: A change of setting only helps so much.
Downton Shabby: A change of setting only helps so much.

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The Merry Wives of Windsor has long been the play Shakespearean scholars love to hate. Samuel Johnson called its structure “deficient”; eminent Oxford professor A.C. Bradley called the play’s central character Falstaff an “impostor” (as compared to the corpulent knight’s more formidable persona in Shakespeare’s Henriad). In sum, Bradley said of Merry Wives, “It is horrible.”

So that’s what the bookish types think. For theater people, staging the play comes with some inherent challenges, and Shakespeare Theatre Company’s handsome and ambitious new staging deals with some better than others.

The sets, for starters, are fantastic. Merry Wives is Shakespeare’s only comedy set in England, but director Stephen Rayne moves the action to 1919, enabling the design team to capitalize on Downton Abbey fervor with wrought iron fences and fancy hats. A series of set pieces rolling on and off and up and out keep the action moving in a three-hour play that could be shorter.

If you are going to cut a Shakespeare play, Merry Wives is a good candidate. The composer Verdi and his librettist Boito smartly eliminated 10 of the 22 named characters for their 1893 operatic adaptation. Boito and Verdi also centered the action on the knight, threw out some side-plots to the side-plots, and called their opera Falstaff.

Most of Shakespeare’s comedies come equipped with some sort of dumbshow running parallel to the main plot. In Merry Wives, however, there are borderline nutcases populating every scene, and Rayne has chosen to amplify each character’s idiosyncrasies. The result is surprisingly unfunny.

To cite just a few examples: Veanne Cox is braying and mean-spirited as one of the titular wives who taunt Falstaff. Caralyn Kozlowski, as the other, is more tempered, but her husband (Michael Mastro) is a blithering idiot, wearing a bowler hat and ridiculously patterned suits. Mistress Quickly (Amy Hohn) is a ditz who can never find anything in her purse. Shakespeare intended unkind things when he specified that Sir Hugh Evans, a parson, is “Welsh,” but whether Floyd King’s warbling dialect comes from Wales or elsewhere is difficult to parse. Barkeep Jimmy Kieffer bellows every line. Falstaff’s three followers seem to speak in a lower-class slang, while Cox is out to sound so highfalutin’ she needs two syllables to say “here.”

Amid all of this affectation—it’s like there’s a competition to be the most off-kilter character—Shakespeare’s clever wordplay is lost. This might work in, say, a Restoration comedy. But in Merry Wives, the main plot is supposed to be the most ludicrous: A 300-pound aging knight is attempting to woe not one but two well-heeled ladies, and make off with their husband’s fortunes. In short, he is supposed to be delusional. David Schramm, the venerable actor playing Falstaff, offers an excellent, straightforward interpretation of the role. He also appears, in this production, to be the sanest, most consistent character onstage. Whether that is Shakespeare’s problem or the Shakespeare Theatre’s problem is a matter critics of literature and theater will continue to debate.