Chicago Theater Review: THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 12, 2013

in Theater-Chicago

OLD LECHERS GET NO RESPECT

Merrily set at Christmastide at the height of the swing era, Barbara Gaines’ sumptuous Navy Pier staging of Shakespeare’s slightest comedy is hilarious, certainly funnier than it has any right to be. As always with this company, it’s also as gorgeous to behold as to hear. Its nearly three hours pass faster than the writing warrants.

Following Falstaff’s hilarious debut in Henry IV, and his death in Henry V, Queen Elizabeth wanted to see more of the rotund braggart-soldier and full-time tippler. Her wish was the Bard’s command: Shakespeare obliged by inventing this sitcom Master Ford (Ross Lehman) disguises himself as the well-to-do Master Brook to get information from Sir John Falstaff (Scott Jaeck) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Artistic Director Barbara Gaines.spin-off, specifically a formulaic farce which, sadly, mocked the knight whom Shakespeare had earlier sympathized with so powerfully.

The plot, which must be continually jump-started with escalating humiliations, punishes Sir John for lusting after the bodies and wealth of the title characters Mistresses Ford and Page. This lord of lard is overpunished for having hormones in his golden years. But then the alternative—treating the fat knight as a de facto stalker and sexual harasser as well as would-be homewrecker—wouldn’t suit the stage or the season.

Shakespeare invents the three-strikes rule: He  has the big-boned Lothario treated as dirty laundry and thrown into the Thames in a clothes basket; then our huge hero gets beaten up as he escapes in an old crone’s garments; and if that’s not enough, the bawdy sinner must be publicly disgraced–lured to Windsor Forest where he’s Mistress Ford (Heidi Kettenring), Sir John Falstaff (Scott Jaeck) and Mistress Page (Kelli Fox) meet in Windsor’s woods for nighttime revels in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Artistic Director Barbara Gaines.pinched by make-believe fairies and in effect forced to abandon lechery and stick to drink. Fat chance, so to speak.

For bad measure Shakespeare throws in two half-baked subplots, each lightened by the abundant boogie-woogie breakout numbers that bedeck the fun: One involves a silly duel between two xenophobic stereotypes, a Welsh preacher and a French physician. (It can only remind you of better clashes in the history plays.) The other anticipates Moliere: Pretty Anne Page is wooed by stupid suitors–the pick-up artist Slender and the epicene Dr. Caius–only to be won by the handsome Fenton, here a G.I. who’s “overpaid, oversexed and over here.”

Mistress Ford (Heidi Kettenring, center) sits assuredly amidst the chaos of her plan to teach her husband a lesson in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Artistic Director Barbara Gaines.Gaines, who thrives on directing lesser Shakespeare, finds a ton of physical fun amid the tedious dialogue. It begins and ends with Scott Jaeck’s bluff but bullied Falstaff, an obese soldier who’d rather attack a flagon of sack than any invading Nazi, and has inflated himself with a horndog’s hubris. Jaeck (who played a suitor in C.S.T.’s 2004 production of the comedy) fully grasps the curmudgeonly, corpulent codger from the inside out. His broad face is a road map of merry mischief in action. But he needs to work harder at not just reacting to his mistreatment. Though the plot never lets Falstaff get to first base, he must convince us that he knows he can seduce and succeed: Otherwise the mean-spirited tricks played on him just look particularly petty.

Jaeck’s one comic rival is Ross Lehman’s tour-de-farce as he repeats his 2004 role as the splenetically jealous Master Ford, a cunning contrast to Kevin Gudahl’s sanguine Master Page. Merry enough, Kelli Fox and Heidi Kettenring, musical-Best friends and confidantes, Mistress Ford (Heidi Kettenring) and Mistress Page (Kelli Fox) delight in their mischief in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Artistic Director Barbara Gaines.comedy delights themselves, remain paragons of virtue even as they outfox the dirty old knight.

Gaines can command Chicago’s best talents. James Harms delivers a sweetly gangly and delightfully good-natured Justice Shallow, Greg Vinkler offers a Clouseau-like accent as Dr. Caius, and Steven Sutcliffe, mousing into a bookworm as silly Slender, all goof up gloriously as the ill-suited suitors. Tiffany Yvonne Cox and Matt Mueller are suitably romantic as the true lovers who discover each other by process of elimination. Don Forston, a potential Falstaff himself, has great fun as the bumptious inn host. The second act contains a chase scene worthy of Benny Hill or a Mack Sennett silent comedy. As for blatant scene-stealing, this production features three very different dogs: Under perfect control (and three leashes), they melt the audience’s hearts throughout the 160 minutes.

The real star is the set. We really feel the town of Windsor all around us, bustling with wartime activity. A winter fantasy (it was autumnal in CST’s previous production), James Noone’s well-integrated set produces Falstaff’s Garter Tavern Sir Hugh Evans (William Dick, center left) comforts a distraught Master Ford (Ross Lehman, center right) while the men and dogs of Windsor look on in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Artistic Director Barbara Gaines.and the Ford kitchen with equal precision and detail, as well as a starkly skeletal Herne’s Oak in the chilly finale.

Equally appealing, Susan E. Mickey’s 1940s costumes and Melissa Veal’s period-perfect wigs tell us exactly when we are. Rich with jitterbugs and Lindy Hops, Lindsay Jones’ pastiche score accentuates the positive, providing a sweetly hokey counterpoint to the salacious doings, and ending riotously with Cole Porter’s joyous romp “Hooray for Love.” Finally, John Culbert’s winter-bright lighting transports us to a Currier and Ives skating pond surrounded by a patently quaint English village. Very merry indeed!

A jealousy-crazed Master Ford (Ross Lehman, right) clutches at the unsuspecting Master Page (Kevin Gudahl) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Artistic Director Barbara Gaines.Mistress Ford (Heidi Kettenring) and Mistress Page (Kelli Fox) conceal Sir John Falstaff (Scott Jaeck) in a basket of dirty laundry in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Artistic Director Barbara Gaines.photos by Liz Lauren

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Chicago Shakespeare Theater
Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier
scheduled to end on Jan. 19, 2014
for tickets, call 312.595.5600
or visit www.chicagoshakes.com

 

for info on Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Lindsay Jones December 13, 2013 at 4:55 am

Hi Lawrence,

Thanks so much for your review. As a point of clarification, Doug Peck was the musical director on Merry Wives, but the score was actually created by me.

Thanks
Lindsay Jones

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Tony Frankel December 13, 2013 at 9:41 am

Mr. Bommer regrets the misattribution, Lindsay. The correction has been made!

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Lindsay Jones December 13, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Thanks so much!!
Lindsay

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