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“Pure slapstick,” groused the woman to her companion on her way out of the Lansburgh lobby.
She had a point. She and we in the audience at the Shakespeare Theatre’s ’50s-flavored production of The Merry Wives of Windsor had just watched a virtuous bottle-blonde warble “Que Sera Sera,” seen a roast turkey dive-bomb in from the fly loft to be basted, and chortled as Falstaff, that sheepish old wolf-whistler, escaped a tight spot in a wimple big enough to get nine nuns aloft. Director Daniel Fish is having none of this Shakespeare-is-sacred business—and he’s having a grand time turning Merry Wives on its ear. His Windsor is a mountain resort town (probably in the Poconos), and his Sir John, that beloved old ne’er-do-well of a knight, is a bandleader in a gold lame dinner jacket and a toupee that looks like a particularly malignant oil slick. In this production, it’s pretty much inevitable that the rotund rogue should croon “Love Letters in the Sand” as he sends identical mash notes to the local housewives he hopes to bed.
James Kronzer has turned the stage lip into an auto bumper and foreshortened the playing area with a stagewide row of louvered yellow doors, over which whimsical topiaries tower and through which the cast constantly comes and goes. (On press night, at least, entrances and exits weren’t as Marx Brothers-sharp as they need to be to extract maximum humor, but that kind of thing is fixable.)
The patrons at the Garter Inn, where David Sabin’s Falstaff is booked for a summer gig, lounge in a row of avocado-green Adirondack chairs, play badminton and golf in costumer Kaye Voyce’s blinding plaid Bermuda shorts, and drink their breakfasts with celery sticks. Dr. Caius (Everett Quinton, overenthusiastically zany) turns out to be a singularly neurotic shrink; his rival, Master Slender (John Plumpis), is an audiovisual-club dork; and Anne Page (a pampered, petulant Eve Michelson), for whose affections they contend, would rather pitch woo with Master Fenton (Jimonn Cole), the hotel’s penniless but sweet-natured carhop-bellboy-handyman. Later, when the affronted Windsor wives have exacted their revenge, Falstaff delivers his solo lamentation in a spotlight in the Garter’s lounge, a low-key stand-up who just can’t get any.
Pure slapstick? Pure fun.
Actually, what Fish has done with his tongue-in-cheeky take on Shakespeare’s bighearted comedy squares neatly with tradition. The sight gags, pratfalls, and painfully broad pop-culture puns he has imposed on the play are nothing if not visual equivalents of the instances of lowbrow wordplay that pepper nearly all of Shakespeare’s scripts. It’s not enough that characters should double and redouble their entendres in dialogue, juggling multiple meanings of words like “matter” and “marry” and “cozen”/”cousin”; when Fish, taking the idea of playing to the groundlings a step further, has his hot-tempered French-speaking psychoanalyst mis-hear an injunction to “throw cold water on your choler,” guess which part of Dr. Caius’ shirt gets soaked? The joke’s not even hinted at in the text, but it gets one of the night’s biggest laughs.
Floyd King, red-faced and bug-eyed as the deceived, aggrieved Master Ford, shares most of the rest of them with Franchelle Stewart Dorn, who plays the busybody blabbermouth Quickly as a sort of endearingly scattered hen (in plumage that admittedly looks more peacock; Voyce’s reliably loud designs are one of the show’s most consistent pleasures). The two of them are at the top of their considerably accomplished games: deft with the language, confident with the comedy, entirely at home either at the center of a swirl of action or alone on a nearly bare stage. This is Dorn’s last hurrah as a resident member of the Shakespeare Theatre company, and the house cheered her lustily at the curtain call. King, who had gamely worn a corset as a crown and, earlier, managed to execute an Ellen-inspired microphone gag with a stone face, was nearly as warmly applauded.
The humor wears just the slightest bit thin by the time the assorted players assemble to work matters out at a drive-in movie at midnight, but Fish reserves one last twist for the final moments. (Dr. Freud, meet Dr. Caius; Dr Caius, Dr. Freud.) It’s not that Fish’s conceit falls down; it’s that things sort of plateau. There’s a point after which you want the mayhem to build momentum, to spiral ever faster out of control, and this production doesn’t find that exhilarating, anarchic rhythm. Maybe it’s deliberate, maybe not; regardless, it’s why there are merely hoots, rather than unbridled howls, when Sir John and his uncertain dignity shuffle onstage in that moose-hair tux for the final scene.