In an ideal world, every great artist would be entitled to an off day. Woody Allen, for example, has produced more ugly flops than a diving board, while Bono will presumably be crossing himself for the next 30 years or so every time he traverses Times Square.
With Shakespeare, things become more complicated. Alas, The Merry Wives of Windsor, while not a catastrophe of Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark proportions, is still something of a turkey. And even the gorgeously staged production currently playing at Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall can’t sufficiently distract us from the fact that the play has a tired story, a watered-down buffoon of a protagonist, and an elaborate subplot about a pair of lovers who are so thinly rendered they’re barely three-dimensional.
Director Stephen Rayne sets Merry Wives in Edwardian England, possibly to raise questions about class structure and a hierarchical society, and possibly to encourage rabid fans of Downton Abbey to leave the comfort of their sofas for an evening out. Either way, the production revolves around Falstaff (David Schramm), an obese, poverty-stricken drunkard who nonetheless decides the key to his future prosperity lies in seducing two of Windsor’s most handsome married women and making off with their money. In modern terms, it’s as if Donald Trump, upon losing all his wealth in some shady subprime investments, attempted to regain some of his social status by shacking up with Heidi Klum and Gisele Bundchen.
Schramm’s Falstaff is definitely lovable, and he carries his ample frame about the stage with grace, meaning you can’t help but feel some sympathy for this relic of a kinder age. Sadly, charm can’t save him from the machinations of Mistress Page (Veanne Cox) and Mistress Ford (Carolyn Kozlowski), a pair of sly tricksters, both elegantly played. Cox, a veteran both here and on Broadway, has fun with the character, although she tends to play second fiddle to Kozlowski’s character, who’s forced to fend off Falstaff’s eager but unwelcome advances.
While Falstaff might be on a budget, apparently the company isn’t. This production boasts a whopping 25 cast members, including four child actors and two grown men who appear to have been hired for the sole purpose of carrying a laundry basket offstage. Among the stellar lineup is Tom Story as the absurd Doctor Caius (who oozes so much French cheese he should come with his own baguettes); Floyd King as Hugh Evans, a Welsh priest; and Amy Hohn as the conniving servant Mistress Quickly. The plot of Merry Wives, while insubstantial, is also convoluted, and the hordes of various characters don’t help. It’s hard not to conclude that this show, with a running time of almost three hours, could have benefited from some more pruning.
Still, Rayne offers spectacle in spades, and this is the kind of carefully crafted production that could have made a masterpiece of a more compelling play. The attention to detail—from the jugs of Pimm’s on Mistress Page’s outdoor table to the fabric of Wade Laboissonniere’s magnificent period costumes—is mind-boggling. The set by Daniel Lee Conway is a visual treat, and so carefully choreographed in all its manifold moving parts that it’s quite fascinating to watch. Unfortunately, with the greatest of respect to the cast and creative team, the same can’t be said for this dud of Shakespeare’s.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is at Shakespeare Theatre’s Sidney Harman Hall through July 15. Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets ($20 to $105) are available via the company’s website.