SHAKESPEARE has often been "updated" with little harm done, but now the newly renamed Shakespeare Theater at the Folger has gone too far -- it's made "The Merry Wives of Windsor" into a circus. The resulting travesty, at three interminable hours, besmirches the venerable reputations of Shakespeare and the circus.

Director John Neville-Andrews came up with the idea for this stinker, and, in the spirit of the evening, he deserves a cream pie in the puss. Though "Merry Wives" has always been considered one of Shakespeare's minor works, it certainly merits better than this indignity.

In order to link this Falstaff to the fat knight of the history plays, Neville-Andrews opens with a prologue from "Henry IV, Part I," in which Falstaff, plagued by money problems, falls into a dream. From then on it's strictly a sad-sack circus. As mishandled by Jim Beard, Falstaff is ostensibly the ringmaster, but actually the dancing bear.

The play is buried beneath piles of props like rubber noses, unicycles, swinging and slamming doors, oversized vegetables. And there's a conspicuous absence of laughter. Shortly after the shock wears off, one wants to shake Falstaff awake -- and send out the clowns.

Not only is the idea rotten, but it's ineptly and laboriously executed. Neville-Andrews has borrowed the talents of some jugglers and such, who swallow not only swords but their lines as well.

A production this bad would ordinarily be an embarrassment to the cast, but they are luckily hidden behind their bulbous noses, costumes and feather-duster wigs, accurately constructed by Holly Cole. The performances are almost all off-key; even the usually dependable Floyd King goes wrong, playing Doctor Caius with a very bad Peter Sellers imitation. And Richard Hart makes every appearance of Shallow occasion to cringe, as he punctuates each utterance with horrid gasping noises, like a clogged drain clearing.

Only Mikal Lambert and Sybil Lines, as the merry wives, escape the cast's woeful fate, though they play their characters like the Elizabethan counterparts of Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz.

To borrow a phrase from Mistress Quickly, the Folger's "Merry Wives" is "an abusing of God's patience and the King's English."

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR -- At the Shakespeare Theater at the Folger through January 26.