Shakespeare may have had a low opinion of regicide, but that was nothing compared with how he felt about pomposity. If murderers of royalty are summarily dispatched, there are slower (if funnier) tortures waiting for those poor characters who think far more highly of their own gifts than the playwright did.
Consider the humiliations meted out to deluded Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” or, more to the point, the regally self-infatuated Sir John Falstaff, the butt of all the jokes in the moderately entertaining “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the farcical comedy that’s on the main stage of Shakespeare Theatre Company. The play, directed by Stephen Rayne, has a plot so hinged on ragging on its central character that it could be summed up with: “Let’s make a fool of Falstaff. That was fun! Let’s do it again!”
The company has cast the appropriately round and snootily risible David Schramm as Falstaff and surrounded him with a polished and pleasing crew that includes Veanne Cox, Michael Mastro, Floyd King, Tom Story and Caralyn Kozlowski. They all complete their assignments in this production — updated, without damage, to World War I in a well-to-do English village — with a sporting aplomb, even if the charms of the play give rise to no more than a few appreciative chuckles.
This is what you might call extra-credit Shakespeare, a bonus for Bardoholics who want to check “Merry Wives” off their Elizabethan bucket lists. We have to thank for its existence the first Queen Elizabeth who, scholars tell us, was so taken with the expansively seductive portrait of Falstaff in “Henry IV, Part 1” that she conveyed to Shakespeare a desire to see him return, in a context with more romantic possibilities.
It’s as if Joey Tribbiani were so beloved on “Friends” that he was transplanted into a starring role in his own sitcom. Oh wait: That happened. Surely, this 16th-century version of a spinoff — call it “The John Falstaff Show” — did better with the Groundlings than “Joey” did in the ratings. And yet, we come with such high expectations to Shakespeare that when one of his plays proves merely serviceable, it’s a bit of a letdown, no matter how diligent the effort.
As Rayne underlines in his transposition to cozy Windsor, circa 1917 — doughboys and suffragettes parade across Daniel Lee Conway’s arched Victorian/Edwardian set — “The Merry Wives” nestles surprisingly comfortably into the tradition of the English drawing-room comedy. Cox’s Mistress Margaret Page and Kozlowski’s Mistress Alice Ford (such uncharacteristically bourgeois-sounding names!) receive identically worded love letters from the clueless Sir John, and in the overkill to come, the merry wives conspire to torment him with a seeming acceptance of his advances.
Shakespeare’s treading water here: The linkage to other, better plays is unmistakable, especially in the climactic evening scene in the forest, in which Falstaff is persuaded to wear antlers as the village children, dressed as sprites and fairies, harass him. (Methinks there is a touch of Bottom in the night.) Perhaps the one distinct facet of “Merry Wives” is its attempt to portray life in an ordinary English household, not one involving citizens of rank — or rank poverty.
With little depth or consequence, the play rallies only when the actors manage to inflate their characters to adequate buoyancy. Schramm’s tweedy Falstaff comes into his own after intermission, in the recounting in his man cave the indignities he unwittingly suffered at the hands of conniving Margaret and Alice. (Cox and Kozlowski, in designer Wade Laboissonniere’s chic, sleek frocks, are becoming as tricksters.) Mastro, in the stock role of the jealous husband, stews convincingly, even if Frank Ford’s paranoia meter mysteriously declines from 100 to zero overnight.
Doing his best Pepe Le Pew, Story shows his talent for eccentricity in the role of luxuriously arrogant Dr. Caius. A few others, such as Amy Hohn as Mistress Quickly and James Konicek’s Pistol, add flavor to some otherwise blander scenes. A welcome back is earned, too, by Mark J. Sullivan, who plays the rather thankless role of the ardent suitor to the Pages’ comely daughter (Alyssa Gagarin). At least he gets a motorcycle on which to ride in and out. (Sullivan, though, seems made for bigger roles: Orlando? Edmund? Hamlet?)
In a staging this massive in Sidney Harman Hall, you get a sense of the challenge facing a classical company that’s varying the menu for its customers, trying very hard not to repeat itself. “Merry Wives” is pleasant. But is pleasant, one wonders, sufficient going forward to support the organization’s elaborate machinery?
by William Shakespeare. Directed by Stephen Rayne. Sets, Daniel Lee Conway; costumes, Wade Laboissonniere; lighting, Thom Weaver; music and sound, John Gromada; voice and text, Krista Scott. With Jarlath Conroy, Michael Keyloun, Jimmy Kieffer, Bev Appleton, Hugh Nees, Kurt Rhoads. About 2 hours 45 minutes. Through July 15 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. 202-547-1122. www.shakespearetheatre.org .