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'Merry Wives': A Big Belly
But Few Sustained Laughs

By Lloyd Rose
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 1998


    'Merry Wives' Jimonn Cole, left, Caitlin O'Connell, Edward Gero and Eve Michelson in "The Merry Wives of Windsor." (By Carol Rosegg)
Tradition has it that Shakespeare wrote "The Merry Wives of Windsor," which opened last night at the Shakespeare Theatre, at Queen Elizabeth I's request/order, and it's hardly a subtle piece of work. Michael Kahn's production of a few years back, starring first Pat Carroll and then Paul Winfield as Falstaff, was unabashedly low and broad, and funny. In this new production, director Daniel Fish's approach is more conceptually sophisticated, in places inspired, but only intermittently funny. Still, it's a setting for the drolly triumphant Falstaff of David Sabin, who splashes happily about in the role like a playful, supple porpoise.

Preceded by a belly so immense it's practically a second character, Sabin's Sir John glides into the small town of Windsor and immediately sets about looking for a work-free way to make a buck. Fish has set the play in the 1950s, and the Garter Inn, where most of the action occurs, is re-created as a resort hotel, complete with pool, golf course and badminton court. Falstaff, in fact, has a job – he's a lounge singer who enters in gold lame jacket and toupee to warble "Love Letters in the Sand." Though not quite as slimy, Sabin is deliberately bad enough here to headline in Hell with Bill Murray's famous third-rate crooner from the old "Saturday Night Live."

Perennially hard up, Falstaff plans to enlarge his purse by paying simultaneous woo to two local married women, Mistress Ford (Melissa Gallagher) and Mistress Page (Caitlin O'Connell). Though she's a bottle blonde with a weakness for form-fitting leopard-prints, Mistress Ford is a loyal wife to her high-strung, absurdly jealous husband, Francis (Floyd King), and her more down-to-earth friend Mistress Page is equally virtuous. Discovering Falstaff's plot, they plan revenge.

In the meantime, the Pages' daughter, Anne (zaftig Eve Michelson), is being set upon by three wooers: the dopey Slender (John Plumpis), the loony French doctor Caius (Everett Quinton of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company) and the poor but honest young handyman Fenton (Jimonn Cole). Guess which one she really loves? Complicating matters for Anne, her parents, Falstaff and everyone else in the play is Caius's busybody servant, Mistress Quickly (Franchelle Stewart Dorn).

The comic ideas are all there. Falstaff as a lousy lounge singer seems irreverently perfect. Slender and Caius duel with a rapier and a badminton racket. In Mistress Ford's kitchen, a mound of red Jell-O topped with whipped cream glisteningly awaits its inevitable meeting with Falstaff's face.

But just as often as they work, the jokes fall flat. The inventiveness of the gags isn't backed by any comic momentum in the play as a whole. Matters don't get funnier and funnier, nothing builds, nothing much seems at stake. Each funny bit stands alone, and when it's done the production sinks back to stasis until it rouses itself to try to put over the next joke.

Whenever King or Dorn gets to take over a scene – they know how to move a comedy – the play sparks to life for a while, but it sags again as soon as they leave the stage. The character of Falstaff is written to be buffeted by the plot rather than lead it, and so Sabin, appropriately, floats benignly over the proceedings like a hot-air balloon. Otherwise – in spite of the presence of actors like Emery Battis, Edward Gero, Christopher Walker and legendary madman Quinton – the production feels aimless and overlong.

James Kronzer's set of a row of louvered doors looks smart, but it's too small for the Shakespeare Theatre's stage and has been badly built besides, so that you can see the actors moving behind it even when the doors are shut. (Nor has the cast mastered the split-second timing needed to make a lot of door-slamming funny.) Scott Zielinski does some lovely things with light – particularly during a scene set at a drive-in movie – but his effects, though beautiful, seem isolated rather than integral. Kaye Voyce's wonderful costumes include chartreuse outfits for Dorn, plus fours and patterned socks for Battis, and mauve golfing shorts. They're utterly nuts but just exactly right, and you get the impression this is the effect the whole production was nobly aiming for.

"The Merry Wives of Windsor" by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Fish. Sound, Red Ramona; musical staging, Peter Pucci. With Eric Hoffmann, Dylan M. McCullough, George F. Grant, Craig Wallace, Bruce Nelson, Mark E. Gladue, Darrell L. Whipple, Seth Cohen and Ryan Vincent Ford. At the Shakespeare Theatre. Call 202/393-2700.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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