The Merry Wives of Windsor
Look, the important thing is that it’s funny.
True, "The Merry Wives of Windsor" has long been considered one of Shakespeare’s most mediocre plays, and yeah, the African American Shakespeare Company’s new production is, at times, not the strongest...but the bottom line is that you’ll laugh (quite a lot) and aside from that how much does the rest even matter?
The show from director Becky Kemper closes out AASC’s season. Presented in farcical 50s sitcom style, "Merry Wives" chronicles the lewd and larcenous knight Sir John Falstaff’s fruitless attempts to seduce two rich, married women. Falstaff here is actress Beli Sullivan (many-time veteran of AASC’s Christmas "Cinderella" productions) supplied with a big fake mustache and fake gut but an entirely genuine aplomb.
There’s also a stock subplot about multiple comic suitors vying for the same woman that for some reason takes up more stage time than the principle story. But at least it gives the large cast something to do.
Odd though it sounds to say about Shakespeare, the show’s biggest flaws are in the script. "The Merry Wives of Windsor" has always been considered kind of the "Hot Space" of Shakespeare’s career. They can’t all be winners, no matter how good you are, and seeing it performed demonstrates pretty amply why: The story plods along, the early jokes don’t really come off, and the subplots overwhelm the whole show.
Since the conflict springs from Falstaff’s financial problems, we wonder if Will himself wasn’t a little hard-up when he rattled this one off. Making matters slightly worse, a few of AASC’s minor cast members can’t carry even the lightweight material, and their delivery verges on incomprehensible.
But you know what? It’s funny. It really, honestly is funny, both script and show. We dare you to keep a straight face. So what if some of the jokes never get off the runway? There are plenty of others that do. The humor isn’t exactly highbrow, but as it turns out, the appeal of watching Falstaff carried away in a laundry basket and dumped into the river translates across the barriers of time and culture just fine. We’re not sure what that says about human nature, but let’s not ruin the funny with a lot of big questions.
And, yeah, some of the cast members are even stiffer than Sir John’s codpiece, but the rest of them are working damn hard. Armond Edward Dorsey pushes his jealous husband shtick so far that he actually upstages Falstaff, and his subplot eclipses the main event by many turns. ShawnJ ("one word, pronounced Sean Jay," the program reminds us) West, playing a meddling parson, stages what is almost a miniature one-man show of incredulous reactions on the sidelines of major scenes; make a point of watching him when the action moves elsewhere. It’s worth the effort.
We’d be remiss not to mention Beli Sullivan again. It’s an oddly affable Falstaff she plays, but the transformation is so compelling that we overheard audience members afterwards referring to "that guy" who plays Sir John. None of the material is exactly "Chimes at Midnight," but if it were, you’d have to put up with Orson Welles raiding the bar between acts, and who has the patience for that?
Once you start to laugh nothing else matters, and AASC’s cast and production really does get the laughs. "All’s Well That Ends Well" might be a completely different show, but the principle still applies.
"The Merry Wives of Windsor" runs through May 26 at the Buriel Clay Theatre, 762 Fulton St. in San Francisco. For info or tickets, call 415-762-207 or visit www.african-americanshakes.org