"The Merry Wives of Windsor" is generally considered to be one of Shakespeare's breezier comedies, and Daniel Fish's production--from the Shakespeare Theatre's previous season, remounted as the theater's free outdoor summer production at Carter Barron Amphitheatre--won't disturb that notion in the least. If anything, a soft summer wind is likely to make a deeper impression on you than Fish's lighter-than-air take on the play.
At times funny and inventive, the slickly designed production just as often suffers from trying too hard. That's a symptom of the show's overall weakness: Despite some bold choices, Fish has compressed Shakespeare's gentle comedy of human foibles into a generic "com," and reduced its themes to a collective "sit-," the result being a 1950s TV yukfest in which gags and gimmicks try to outdo each other. The play, not exactly profound to begin with, becomes even more shallow. Talk about dubious achievements.
The plot: The rascally Sir John Falstaff (David Sabin, in fine form) is trying to seduce two wealthy, virtuous wives--Margaret Page (Caitlin O'Connell) and Alice Ford (Melissa Gallagher)--in hopes of getting his hands on their fortunes. The wives, however, learn of his intentions and merrily bait him into his comeuppance. Add a subplot involving a jealous husband along with parents who prefer their daughter's mercenary suitors over the man she truly loves, and thereby hangs a simple morality tale about vanity, greed and the green-eyed monster.
Besides condensing at least two characters into one and eliminating a large part of the final scene (no great loss in either case), Fish has cleverly moved the play to a mountain resort in the northeastern United States of 1956. Falstaff is a musician--a fat lounge lizard, really--who plays the resort. The others become symbols of postwar, white-bread America.
James Kronzer's set reflects much of the spirit and specifics of the time--a giant American flag as backdrop; a wall of cabana doors; kitchen racks complete with automated appliances. The prevailing atmosphere is one of happiness through conspicuous consumption and compulsive vacationing.
All of which, as a conceit, is fine. But even Shakespeare's lightest pieces have something to them. In "Merry Wives," the author humorously contrasts two marriages--the Pages' against the Fords'; Fish just lampoons them. George Page (Ed Gero) is blithely confident of his wife's fidelity; Francis Ford (Floyd King) doubts his almost every instant. Moreover, Alice Ford knows of her husband's insane jealousy, yet not once but twice allows him to believe she's giving in to Falstaff's overtures. Fish apparently decided none of this behavior is worth even a comic exploration. Instead, he pushes everyone toward caricature.
The evening relies heavily on, oh, a doctor's assistant who has a thing for self-flagellation, or fingers getting caught in slammed doors, or a fat man so fat he can't get up without help. Some of this brings a quick smile to your lips. But it all dissipates even faster because it only occasionally generates an inspired scene.
Those scenes typically involve Sabin, who romps through his role, literally and figuratively lolling in the excesses of Falstaff. Others involve Franchelle Stewart Dorn as the maid, Mistress Quickly, whom Dorn seems to bring to life effortlessly with a smart blend of genteel cunning and woozy lust.
King, Gero, O'Connell and Gallagher deliver workmanlike performances, which is about the best you can expect given the limits of the director's interpretation.
Scott Zielinski's lighting, always on target, ranges from the intimate to the dramatic, especially in the final scene when one of the few alterations to the original production occurs (let's just say Carter Barron's woods play a wonderfully surprising part). Red Ramona's sound--mostly pop crooning of the era--swings. Unfortunately, Kaye Voyce's costumes aren't always consistent: What Falstaff and the husbands wear entertainingly reflects who they are, but Mistress Quickly's loud get-ups, for instance, make her look more like a social climber than a maid.
More than a trifle but less than significant, this "Merry Wives" never bores. It certainly held the attention of children during the performance I saw. But is that because they experienced the unique magic of live theater, or the way a glib production can look just like television?
The Merry Wives of Windsor, by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Fish. With Eric Hoffman, Jimonn Cole, Eve Michelson, Clement Fowler, John Plumpis, Mark Gladue, George Grant, Howard Overshown, Bruce Nelson, Nathan Stolpman, Sharief Paris, Lee Hagy, Christopher Walker and Paul Mullins. Through June 20 at Carter Barron Amphitheatre. Call 202-334-4790.
CAPTION: Floyd King, as Master Ford, at the service of David Sabin's Falstaff.