Desperate Housewives

With any Shakespeare play, it's always a puzzle deciding what do with those legions of extra "guys." In Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Lion Theater, director Brad Fryman has cleverly solved the problem of these companions and hangers-on: he's turned them into a guitar-strumming, Hawaiian print shirt wearing, West Coast-style knit hat sporting, rock 'n' roll entourage, and it made perfect sense. Long after the evening was over, I was still thinking that he had it pegged exactly: they're groupies, of course. What else? But the entire production is not nearly so well executed. In fact, much of this light comedy comes off flat. In the play, Falstaff (described on the Oberon Theater Ensemble's Web site as a rock 'n' roll producer past his prime) decides to simultaneously pursue two married women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford of Windsor, with an eye toward their pocketbooks. The women are infuriated by his love letters and collude to exact revenge upon him.

In the process, Mistress Ford hopes to teach her jealous husband a lesson, and two of Falstaff's disgruntled cronies decide to tell the husbands that he is courting their wives. Meanwhile, Mistress Page's daughter, Anne, is pursued by several men, although the one she wants does not have the blessing of either of her parents.

Having solved the groupies problem, the Oberon took on the next hurdle, the big one in any contemporary Shakespeare production: the language—both for the actors who have to wrestle with it and the director who must convince a potentially skeptical audience that a seemingly foreign tongue has meaning to them. Overall, the actors have a good handle on the words; some of them are clearly experienced with Shakespeare and give able performances, particularly Fryman as Falstaff, Walter Brandes as Master Ford, and Kate Ross as Mistress Page.

Beyond that, this production seems to be trying really hard to convince us that Merry Wives is not a scary play. "But those thee's and thou's I find need better translation. So welcome all to Windsor … Windsor 2006," sings Bardolph, played by Mickey Zetts, who is also the show's composer/lyricist.

But having the wives sport boots and jeans doesn't automatically translate the text for modern ears. The production succeeds at not being intimidating, but it never gels. In particular, the dialogue is sometimes emphasized (or not) in odd places. At one point, one of the men jumps up to declare that Mistress Quickly—a busy flirt/personal assistant type with hipster glasses and a hot pink skirt—is the "prize," suggesting a plot complication that never materializes. Emphasis in key places might have helped to decode the plot a bit more.

Though the production is peppered with good comic ideas—like running accent gags, and Mistress Ford getting kissed by every man in Windsor—good ideas they remain. The play and individual gags are executed too slowly to be funny in practice. And while Zetts's lyrics sometimes serve the play well—particularly as an inexpensive set change ("Another field/Near Frogmore/A totally different field than before")—such songs as "Cuckold" seem unnecessary and slow the action down even more.

The music's relatively laid-back tempo doesn't help the production's pace either. That isn't to say that there is no way this could have worked—if the world of Windsor had seemed a bit sad and stagnant, a bit of slowness might have made sense. But the faces of the merry wives brim with laughter, and the press release from Oberon, which is also producing <a href= Sweet Love Adieu in repertory with Merry Wives, says the group was looking for something joyful and celebratory to do.

Although Fryman gives a strong, ribald performance as Falstaff, it would have been wise if he had chosen between acting and directing. The production could have used another set of eyes on it, from start to finish. In fact, one of the show's problems is that Falstaff comes off like the victim of a vicious trick, as opposed to his own folly. Watching his reaction, I felt more sorry for him than anything else. It could be that the lack of comedic pacing offers a little too much time to think, or perhaps a world like Windsor can't be as easily transplanted to today as the show's creators had hoped.

By the end, the wives' machinations seem more cruel than merry. And when, at the play's end, Zetts sings that "Windsor's like any place you ever knew," it seemed a little forced. The only contemporary women I can think of who have so much time on their hands are in sitcoms and evening soaps. Where else could a woman be so desperately bored that she spends her time seeking revenge on a conniving fortune seeker whom she has already found out, rather than just ignoring him?

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