The Merry Wives of Windsor -06/28/1999
By William Shakespeare. Cast includes: Jonathan Awori, Matthew Lane Schwartz, John Fischer, Thomas Anthony Quinn, Michael McAlister, Cheryl Leigh Williams, Laura Frances Love, Stephen Rose, Lisa Gaye Dixon, John Tovar, Brian J. Gill, and Frank Nall. Director: Karen Sheridan. Costume and Scenic Designer: Michelle Ney. Lighting Designer: Laura Manteuffel. Sound Designer: Colleen Kenny.
Illinois Shakespeare Festival
In repertory through August 1. Ewing Manor, Bloomington, and Westhoff Theater, Normal. Box office: 309-438-2535.
Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth so enjoyed the portly, puffed-up character of Falstaff in Shakespeare's "Henry IV" that she asked the Bard to write another play with Falstaff in a more romantic mood.
The result, according to these stories, is "The Merry Wives of Windsor," where the big, blustery booby of a knight simultaneously pursues two smart ladies, tangles with one of their husbands in disguise, and gets his comeuppance and then some.
The Illinois Shakespeare festival production of "The Merry Wives" is in good hands with director Karen Sheridan. Her emphasis is on merriment, with excellent comic performances, some truly inspired bits if staging, and a marvelous sense of humor.
The way the actors use the stage (and portions of the audience) is smashing, and there are no lapses, no dull moments, even at three-plus hours.
Carrying out Sheridan's up-tempo game plan, the cast is terrific across the board, showing energy and a willingness to sweat the details.
Even among that kind of excellence, Frank Nall's no-holds-barred take on jealous, tortured Mr. Ford stands out. He manages to make everything from his fake mustache to his squashed hat hilarious. And when Nall chokes out his shame at being a (gasp, wheeze, shudder) cuckold, he wrings every drop of comedy from the text and deservedly brings down the house.
Cheryl Leigh William's pert and saucy Mistress Page is also wonderful, while Michael McAlister, as that booming buffoon Falstaff, and Laura Frances Love, as the charming Mistress Ford, create all kinds of amusing sparks, especially when she bounces on his lap like she's riding a runaway pony. All by himself, McAlister does a wet-T-shirt number that is not to be forgotten.
Others of note in the cast include Matthew Lane Schwartz as a befuddled Welsh parson, John Fischer as a foolish would-be suitor, Lisa Gaye Dixon as cheerful, meddling Mistress Quickly, intermediary-for-hire, and John Tovar as a very, very French doctor with a trigger-happy temper and a fondness for the phrase "by gar," whatever that means.
But even the actors in the background, like those who strain to tote the overly plump Falstaff inside a basket, stay in character and add comedic details.
On the technical side, Michelle Ney contributes a pretty parade of rustic, patchwork costumes and a soft pastel, half-timbered set. Both design elements create the right light mood, and the costumes even offer a guide to who's-related-to-whom if you look closely at patterns and colors.
The only visual disappoinment is Falstaff's turn as a female impersonator, which is sort of blah. I admit it -- after the sterling quality of the rest of the show, I expected Falstaff to become a giant, garish, gaudy fantasy of a woman. Ah well. Since that's the only missed moment in the whole evening's entertainment, it doesn't matter much.
In the end, it's the comedy that counts. And this "Merry Wives" has them rolling in the aisles.