Had TV existed in 1600 and Will Shakespeare been tempted to write a series which would have been "relevant" to the masses "out there," he might have come up with "The Merry Wives of Windsor." At all events, the Folger Theater Group has tapped this for its holiday bill through Jan. 21 and it must be confessed that its situation comedy aspects remain workable even in the Folger's scholarly atmosphere.
Here was the writer of historical dramas taking up a "suggestion" from the great, fading Elizabeth I that he present Falstaff, his great comic creation from the "Henry" chronicles, making some of those sexual conquests he'd boasted of in the history plays.
Shakespeare, who was thinking at that time of "Hamlet" and the great plays to follow, here broadened his pitch to write about the middle classes, country folk, parsons, the traveling French and a couple of couples in which the wives were decidely livelier than their suspicious and/or lugubrious husbands. A dash of young lovers thwarting plots of their elders would take care of the younger segment of the TV audience. Instead of poetry he'd write in prose and some broad farce wouldn't be amiss either.
Even more "relevant" would be the notion that women didn't always plot marriages to princes or murders of same or suffer the inactivity of watching their offspring cut off in their prime by political ambitions.
What has present appeal to director Mikel Lambert, the first woman to stage a Folger production, are Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, two very with-it wives and neighbors who are merely amused that a pompous old ass of a knight offers them his worn, questionable favors. They tease Mr. Ford, who has a low boiling point, into apoplectic jealous rages at the suspicion that Sir John is hidden somewhere in his house. And if getting tossed with the dirty laundry into the Thames isn't punishment enough for Sir John, they have other nightmares to follow.
The Folger production is at its best with Helen Carey's Mrs. Page, Glynis Bell's, Mrs. Ford and Peter Vogt's Mr. Ford.
These are spirited, vitality-charged performances and are spoken, quite correctly, in prose, not in Shakespeare's customary, spacious verse. The players know what they're doing and their pacing is effectively varied.
In this play, perhaps because it was suggested he come up with it in a fortnight, Shakespeare seems to have lost the careful interest he had in creating Falstaff. In this variation Falstaff is the pawn, acted upon, and Thomas Carson finds very little to suggest why he'd been such a favorite in the earlier histories. What with Shallow, Slender and Sir Hugh as well as Pistol, Nym and Bardolph, there are too many clowns for amusing definitions. Eric Zwemer and Karen Wadman are affecting as the young folk and William Penn's original score has amusing, charming, entirely appropriate sounds.