CBT Refreshes Shakespeare's Classic Comedy 'The Merry Wives of Windsor'

Last month PBS ran a solemn documentary about TV comedies, and the announcer gravely intoned that Jackie Gleason "invented a new art form: the situation comedy." That claim is most credible, of course, when you find some way to discredit the 350 years of situation comedies before it, like Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor.

It would make a better-than-average episode of Desperate Housewives. A jovial player tries to seduce two married women who, he doesn't realize at first, are close friends likely to share his love notes. Or that they also have a knack for well-intended treachery. Meanwhile, their husbands react to the rumors in opposite ways, one nonchalant, the other nervously, madly jealous. Meanwhile, a much younger beauty contemplates matrimony, her most obvious choices being a pompous Frenchman and an effeminate loon. What follows is lots of deception, misunderstanding, and slapstick.

It's Clarence Brown's first Shakespeare play in a couple of years, and Kate Buckley's production is apparently the first time they've ever staged this well-known comedy. It's said to be Shakespeare's only play with a setting in his own time and place, ca. 1600 Windsor, just outside of London.

The production may not hook you in the opening scene. Loud recorded faux-Elizabethan music, some student acting, and an accent that made one actor's lines nearly indiscernible can leave you thinking maybe this is something to be cheerfully endured in the name of culture. But by the time of the first appearances of Falstaff and Mistress Quickly, it's picking up, and with a lively, crisp pace that seems modern, it kept the audience laughing, more, we bet, than they would have if they'd stayed at home watching prime time.

Costumes enhance the bizarre diversity of characters. Conrad Ricamora, as Slender—did Shakespeare really picture him as a closeted gay man?—seems like an escapee from a Saturday Night Live skit. David Brian Alley plays the constricted Frank Ford, a near opposite to his counterpart, Damon Boggess, as a jaunty George Page. Ashley Stochel and Suzanne Ankrum play the objects of Falstaff's desire and the cool architects of his comeuppance.

Neil Freidman, a versatile pro, is a nearly perfect Falstaff, even though his belly is so huge it suggests not joie de vivre so much as a serious glandular condition. We worry about him perhaps more than we should. But it's just a costume issue. Note: As written, Falstaff is not as complex, or as sympathetic, as he is in the Henry IV plays. In Merry Wives, he is nearly pure buffoon.

Magan Wiles as Mistress Quickly was the actress everybody was talking about in the refurbished lobby at intermission. Her engaging, energetic performance makes us wish she'd just do some scenes over again. If this were a sitcom, they'd be talking to Mistress Quickly about a spin-off.

This funny, fresh production offers few opportunities for complaint, except for some accents. Some are gamely English, or at least mid-Atlantic, some are sports-talk Southern. It doesn't spoil the play, but you might sit there wondering what the characters themselves make of their own differences.

Some do get in the way. Sir Hugh's Welsh accent, a sort of combination of Scottish and Nazi, is comical and at times unintelligible. His accent's so thick we miss even the intended malaprops.

Clarence Brown Theatre is famous for its sets, and this one appears pretty standard, by CBT standards: an angular Tudor village street, which fills in for a variety of specific scenes. You might think they gave their usually imaginative set designers a break this month until, in the last quarter of the play, something astonishing happens to it before our eyes, and it becomes an enchanted forest, for a crazy twist in the action that involves most of the characters.

A final note, no more about this production than about the mainstream American approach to Shakespeare's comedies: I've rarely seen a Shakespeare comedy in which the actors' unscripted slapstick doesn't get more laughs than the actual lines. About 15 years ago, in this space, I expressed a fond desire to live to see a single Shakespeare comedy at Clarence Brown in which a character doesn't mime the sex act with the old double-forearm pull. And of course, that universal theater sign language for "We're talking about sex, here, folks" does appear again in this production, if perhaps a little more subtly than in times past.

It's a discouraging reality. Shakespeare's brilliant, and often very funny, but language has changed to such an extent in 400 years that we now need a glossary to catch many of his jokes. No audience wants to pore over a glossary, so a director is obliged to replace the Elizabethan jokes with new, modern jokes. The phrase "She gave me the clap," for example, doesn't appear in my copy. Sailors know a "pinnace" is a type of sailboat, but in the line, "sail like a pennace to their golden shores," the audience understood it as "penis." That mishearing may or may not have been intended by the bard, but some scholars claim the line was intended to be bawdy for more arcane, glossary-requiring reasons—so maybe the presentation had something like the intended effect.