“The 1970s felt like a really nice moment of change and energy,” says Posner. “For these ‘merry wives,’ when this fat knight tries to seduce them, they don’t get upset, they don’t cry, they don’t run to their husbands, they don’t avoid him. They go, ‘Yeah, I don’t think so. Let’s be revenged on him. Let’s take power into our own hands.’ ”
Posner, who is also a playwright, is no stranger to rethinking classic texts: His plays “Stupid F---ing Bird,” “Life Sucks (Or the Present Ridiculous)” and “No Sisters” are updated takes on the works of Anton Chekhov, and his 2016 play “District Merchants” was a D.C.-set variation of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.”
Unlike those plays, this production of “Merry Wives” is still mostly Shakespeare’s text — but with a ’70s sitcom spin. In addition to channeling the social values of the time, Posner wanted to create an escape from the current news cycle by imbuing his version of “Merry Wives” with the broad laughs and empathetic virtues of shows such as “The Brady Bunch” and “The Partridge Family.”
“I think we are being aware of the world that we’re in,” Posner says, “mostly in that people could use a good laugh these days, and a little escape to the world of capital-C comedy.”
When Posner and scenic designer Tony Cisek brainstormed ideas for the “Merry Wives” set, they found the discussion repeatedly circling back to the iconic “Brady Bunch” house. So they wholeheartedly embraced that cultural touchstone, with Cisek’s design featuring stone columns and colored panels that undeniably evoke the Brady residence.
“The aesthetic of the ‘Brady Bunch’ home is quite specific,” Cisek says. “If I have one great piece of research that I keep going back to, I feel very satisfied. It’s rich, it keeps giving, and everything I needed came out of that.”
Posner also reworked the script, which he streamlined and peppered with ’70s vernacular (think Jimmy Walker’s catchphrase “Dyn-o-mite!” from “Good Times”).Costume designer Devon Painter broke out the bell-bottom jeans, fringe jackets and platform shoes. The production even features a sitcom-esque opening theme song by Matthew Nielson, plus some disco dance moves. The result, Posner hopes, is a take on “Merry Wives” that amplifies the good-natured spirit of a work that is less celebrated than some of the Bard’s other plays.
“Some of his less-good plays are less good because there’s just not that much good stuff in them, and some of them are less good because they’re not structured as well,” Posner says. “We’ve moved some things around and cut a lot of stuff and reshaped some things to, I think, make it a little bit more accessible. But it’s Shakespeare’s world, and I do think people will be surprised by how we have found the key in it being really positive.”
The peace-and-love vibe was one reason Folger artistic producer Janet Alexander Griffin chose the play as what will be the company’s final on-site production during the two-year renovation project the Folger building will undergo, beginning this year. (The Elizabethan Theatre itself, whose architecture evokes the courtyard of an English Renaissance inn — complete with wooden balconies, oak columns and a half-timbered facade — will not be altered.)
“There’s a real community feel to the play, in a kind of delightful way,” Griffin says. “Aaron has a real way with comedies. He finds the way to be both funny and touching, so I thought it’d be a good send-off for us.”
Folger isn’t the first D.C. theater company to temporarily vacate its home: Renovations forced Theater J and Round House Theatre to find new venues for productions during the 2018-2019 season before both companies reopened their spaces last year. Arena Stage did the same while overhauling its facility from 2008 to 2010.
After “Merry Wives” concludes its groovy run on March 1, Folger will go dark before launching a 2020-2021 season featuring three plays in collaboration with different partners around town: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” from July 7 to Aug. 30 at the National Building Museum; “The Tempest,” adapted by Posner and the magician Teller, from Nov. 3 to Dec. 27 at Round House; and “Nathan the Wise,” from Feb. 17 to March 14, 2021, at Theater J.
Just as episodes of “The Brady Bunch” typically ended with a moral, “Merry Wives” concludes with Falstaff understanding the error of his ways. As the whole town of Windsor comes together for the play’s finale, Griffin says the ending functions as a meta-celebration of sorts for a cast packed with Folger favorites, including returning actors Eric Hissom, Cody Nickell, Kate Eastwood Norris and Todd Scofield.
“This has been an incredibly important artistic home to me,” says Posner, who has overseen more than 20 productions at Folger over the past two decades. “It feels like an honor to be able to do the last one in this configuration. The sense of love and positivity feels like a really nice show to go out on.”
An earlier version of this story gave incorrect run dates for “The Tempest” at Round House Theatre. The story has been updated.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Folger Theatre, 201 East Capitol St. SE. 202-544-7077. folger.edu.