Baltimore Shakespeare Factory’s (BSF) production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Tom Delise, delivers the “merry” promised in the title. The wives – Alice Ford (Emily Classen) and Margaret Page (Bethany Mayo) – are beside themselves with delight over their schemes to bamboozle the oversized basket of male ego and appetite known as John Falstaff (David Forrer). Their delight is infectious.
Falstaff, of course, winds up as a literal basket case at one point. In a well-choreographed slow-motion chase, he is hounded off the stage at another. He gets snookered not only by the women but by a thinly-disguised husband he is trying to cuckold. By play’s end, he is fully aware that the jokes are on him. With a varied and supple vocal instrument, able to be clearly heard even in quiet passages, and a humorously swaggering physicality, Forrer commands the stage every moment he is on it. His Falstaff is every bit the fool, as he should be, but a fool it’s impossible to take one’s eyes off.
The production is full of funny, spot-on characterizations. Alice Ford’s jealous husband Frank (Jeff Miller) is at his best in a blond wig and glasses as Frank’s alter ego “Brook” engages Falstaff to seduce his wife, hoping to catch her in the act. Mistress Quickly (Kay-Megan Washington) in her winkingly knowing way, helps the wives put one trick after another over on Falstaff. Mistress Quickly is a bit shaky on language arts, however, as she demonstrates as part of the well-executed bawdy Latin lesson in the second act.
Merry Wives is very much an ensemble show, and Delise keeps the pace quick, the characters (several actors play multiple roles) clearly delineated, and the comedy sparkling, including a lovely set-piece in which “fairies” tickle Falstaff into submission.
The production plays on and in front of a nearly bare stage, without typical stage lighting, sound design, or special effects, and with relatively basic costuming. These features, as well as having actors speaking directly to, and in some cases, interacting with, audience members, are consistent with BSF’s “bard to the bone” style of attempting to present the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries as a 17th-century audience might have seen them. For Shakespeare, this approach works, and has the virtue of focusing on the words and characters, rather than stagecraft bells and whistles.
BSF’s home is a visually beautiful repurposed church, housing a two-level stage area suggestive of the Globe or, for that matter, the Folger. The space is challenging acoustically, however. In this production, some actors met that challenge better than others. Forrer’s and Washington’s words were always clear, for example, while those of the actors playing accent or character voice roles were less so. Classen and Mayo were a bit harder to follow when speaking rapidly in their higher registers than when speaking more slowly or in a lower voice.
These issues are most prominent on the main stage. Scenes played on the floor in front of the main stage are clearly heard, as are scenes played in the second level balcony, where a decorative overhead panel acts as a sounding board. To its credit, BSF recognizes the acoustic problems, posting a small placard in the hallway to the restrooms recommending sitting as near the front and center as possible to hear the unamplified performers and to avoid the drone of the air conditioning system, and even suggesting that audience members cup their ears to ask an actor to speak more loudly (in my experience, the issues are less with volume than with clarity). It is to be hoped that the group, whose productions have substantial merit, will find additional solutions or accommodations in the future to improve the aural experience of the audience.
Merry Wives is a thoroughly happy show, with little if any of the undertone of melancholy that characterizes some other Shakespeare comedies. BSF’s production brings that lightness to the fore, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable one.
Running Time: Two hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission. The play is preceded by 30 minutes of pre-show entertainment by the cast.
The Merry Wives of Windsor, produced by the Baltimore Shakespeare Factory, plays through August 18, 2019, in the Great Hall of the St. Mary’s Community Center, 3900 Roland Avenue, Baltimore MD. Purchase tickets at the door or online.