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Theater Review: “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at Shakespeare Theatre

A gorgeous set and stellar cast still can’t save the premise of this ropey old farce.

Veanne Cox, David Schramm, and Carolyn Kozlowski in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photograph by Scott Suchman

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

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.

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
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

While Falstaff might be on a budget, apparently the
company isn’t. This production boasts a whopping 25 cast members,
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
of a more compelling play. The attention to detail—from the
jugs of Pimm’s on Mistress Page’s outdoor table to the fabric
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.