Theater Review: Rediscovering an Oft-Dismissed Shakespearean Comedy

Now in its fourth season, the oft-loved and critically-acclaimed Trinity Shakespeare Festival presents a comedy, Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor,  that is a little unconventional in that it is set entirely in England with no single, definitive source, and it centers on the middle-classed folks of Windsor (no kings, queens, or dukes here). Even though, as a farce, it is well-constructed and fast-moving, the play has always felt a little forced. And it certainly presents a far inferior Falstaff to the one living in the Henriad.

That is, until now. What a beautiful treat it is to rediscover a popular play when it is done in such a straight-forward way. That’s what Trinity Shakespeare Festival achieves with its complete and colorful new production, and in the process, the Fort Worth summer festival reaffirms its theatrical dominance once more.

The dead simple plot follows Sir John Falstaff (David Coffee), woefully short on funds, as he schemes to make amorous overtures to the steadfast wives (Lydia Mackay as Mistress Page and Trisha Miller as Mistress Ford, both wry in all the right spots) and Messrs, Ford and Page (Richard Haratine and J. Brent Alford respectively). Mistress Page’s daughter, Anne (a fresh and earnest Amber Marie Flores), is also the object of desire of three would-be suitors: a fancy fool named Slender (the studied, point-perfect G. David Trosko), the oh-so-French doctor Caius (an over-the-top awesome Blake Hackler), and the heartsick young’un named Fenton (Bradley Gosnell). Each of these men asks for the assistance of Mistress Quickly (a delightfully slummy Amber Quinn). Throw in an eccentric Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans (Chuck Huber wielding an impressive accent), and assorted other colorful characters, and you have an enchanting menagerie of merriment.

Trinity stalwart Coffee reprises the role of the fat knight to great effect here with jumping eyebrows over his omnipresent squint, and with his expansive frivolity. It is not often that this faux Falstaff can shine in this light as meringue ensemble piece that features a Sir John who does not measure up to the humorous and  insightful knight in his other plays. Tradition holds, perhaps apocryphal, that Queen Elizabeth commissioned Shakespeare to revive the beloved Falstaff in a new play and to show him in love. However, such is the brilliance of festival Artistic Director T.J. Walsh (last year’s delightful As You Like It), who has a jeweler’s eye for the material, that he is able to elicit transcendent performances from his actors, and present a fully realized world for them to inhabit.

Another standout performance is the ever-charming Miller (one of my all-time favorite Rosalinds), as Mistress Ford, who luxuriates in every purred line of dialogue. Still, the show nearly belongs to Richard Haratine (last year’s swashbuckling Macbeth) who is a thorough, scene-stealing hoot as the jealous, moneyed “knave” of a husband. He is almost funnier than Falstaff, and that’s saying a lot.

The production features great performances all-around, because they are full characters and not just the capital “S” Shakespeare cardboard cutouts so often put on stage, where you mostly see the strain of maintaining the iambic pentameter and not the acting.

The aesthetics of the play are stunning too. Leigh Ann Chermack’s sumptuous costumes, Sean Urbantke’s beautiful bucolic set that works with clockwork precision, and Tristan Decker’s illuminating lighting complete the picture.

The takeaway: we can discover great things even in a supposed middling play if it’s done the right way, and Trinity is making quite the impressive habit of doing just that.

Photo Courtesy of Trinity Shakespeare Festival.

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