There are moments when art and life are so wittily and intimately entwined, you can feel the vibe without a word being said. Given the joyful display of color and power at this weekend’s Women’s March, it’s an absolute stroke of genius for Aaron Posner to introduce the female protagonists of Folger’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, walking in through the house with placards celebrating women’s equality. As if the March hadn’t ended yet—which, dear reader, it truly has not.
As a director and playwright, Posner is a known quantity, and his work hardly requires any introduction for regular Washington theatergoers. But for the uninitiated, consider this: he doesn’t just have a genius for comedy and for Shakespeare. He doesn’t just milk every line and gesture for laughs—and add a few extra one-liners into the mix. With this production, he has taken Shakespeare’s cheesiest made-to-order sitcom and converted it into an incredibly apt commentary on the power of women in our time.
It helps that the cast is stellar. Brian Mani’s gruff, impossibly rotund Falstaff has the look of a Dead Head who’s had one tab of acid too many and doesn’t know it. His foghorn voice, horrifically unkempt hair, and gift for comic timing are the centerpiece of the show—and I’m just getting started with the cast here, folks. As Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, Regina Aquino and Ami Brabson are a perfect team, coolly and calmly plotting their revenges on Falstaff for daring to proposition both of them. At once. For the money.
One of the joys of Shakespeare is his ability to create sub-plots which reflect and refract the main storyline. Young Anne Page (the endearing Linda Bard) is confronted by numerous suitors, all of them after her money and only one of them honest enough to admit it. Her eligibility is the pretext for non-stop mayhem, as an eccentric host of single men preen and brag and fight over her hand. Cody Nickell’s turn as Dr. Caius is riotously funny, with a French accent more extreme than anything Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther could muster. As Abraham Slender, Brian Reisman has that inimitable nerdy charm, coupled with a blissful ignorance that he is driving everyone around him (Anne Page for one) absolutely nuts. He is accompanied by Justice Shallow, played here by Tommy A. Gomez with a dialect almost as thick as the good doctor’s.
For comic perfection, however, you cannot possibly miss Kate Eastwood Norris’ turn as Mistress Quickly. With her primmer-than-prim white bow in her perfect blonde wig, Norris takes the thankless occupation of Dr. Caius’ nurse and go-between and tears up the script. Her Midwestern accent and klutziness will have you begging for mercy.
There is ample room for visual and aural humor to match the stellar cast. Tony Cisek’s set is an oh-so-telling reference to The Partridge Family and Brady Bunch, with stained glass walls (think Mondrian on bubble-gum pop) and open-beam construction. Costume designer Devon Painter exploits just about every period trope imaginable—bell-bottoms, horrific clashes of plaid and stripes, half-open polyester shirts with bling, you name it, you’ll see it. In particular, Mani’s Falstaff bravely becomes a fashion plate for some of the most ridiculous ’70s wear imaginable. You cannot unsee this stuff, any more than you can un-hear Matthew Nielson’s pitch-perfect music and sound design. You are treated to an avalanche of Osmond Brothers, bubblegum pop, stale radio ads, with TV-ready interludes to introduce each scene.
The show is a treat to Boomers, but there is (of course) the generational risk that if you bring your kids, they’ll start asking rude questions about what you wore back in the day, and why you seem to know all the words to those ridiculous tunes. So be it; suck it up, brave the theater, and have the grace to admit that yeah, we really were that tacky, we had no idea.
This production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a perfect way to close out the Folger Theatre space before it undergoes renovation and the company becomes a moving target around town.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.