By Richard Ades
Fat and vain, cowardly and conniving, Sir John Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s greatest comic inventions. But you have to catch him in one of the Bard’s Henry IV plays to see him at his best.
In The Merry Wives of Windsor—which some believe was written because Queen Elizabeth I wanted to see more of the entertaining scamp—he’s simply the butt of the joke. The result is a comedy that’s less fun than it would have been if he were as sly and resourceful as he is in Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2.
On the Schiller Park stage, director Beth Kattelman and her cast try their hardest to extract laughs from his misadventures, and sometimes they succeed. More often, though, they merely succeed in raising the volume with shouted lines and over-the-top acting.
The plot starts promisingly enough. While staying at an inn in Windsor, Falstaff (Adam Simon) realizes he can no longer afford his hard-partying lifestyle. He quickly comes up with the idea of improving his finances by romancing Mistresses Ford and Page (Elizabeth Harelick and Michelle Weiser), two local married ladies.
Unfortunately for Falstaff, the ladies are close friends who share everything—including the identical love notes he sent them. Insulted, they agree to concoct a romantic trap in order to teach him a lesson.
What happens next should be a delicious case of comeuppance, and it would be if Falstaff weren’t so darn gullible. Instead, he’s such an easy mark that the wives are able to fool him over and over. What starts out amusingly soon becomes predictable and repetitious. And it doesn’t help matters that the mostly admirable Harelick and Weiser go overboard on the faux melodramatics whenever they’re conning the lascivious knight.
An added complication provides a few chuckles. After Falstaff’s disgruntled former servants tell the wives’ husbands what their ex-boss is up to, the jealous Ford (Micah Logsdon) decides to investigate. Introducing himself as a man named Brook, he tells Falstaff he has long lusted after Mistress Ford but can’t persuade her to abandon her marital vows. He invites Falstaff to compromise her integrity in order to make her more open to his advances.
The early scenes between Falstaff and the disguised Ford are nicely handled by Simon and Logsdon, but the latter eventually gives in to the production’s tendency toward over-emoting.
A romantic subplot involves the Pages’ daughter, Anne (a winsome Cecelia Bellomy), who is being courted by a trio of suitors. Here, some characters stand out thanks to inspired comic performances, including the idiotic Slender (Dayton Willison), the extravagantly French Dr. Caius (Daniel Turek) and Caius’s mischievous servant, Mistress Quickly (Jennifer Feather-Youngblood). Meanwhile, Jesse Massarro shows welcome restraint as third suitor Fenton, as does Nick Baldasare as Anne’s father.
Stefan Langer also fares well as Welsh clergyman Sir Hugh Evans. He doesn’t actually display the incoherent accent that others joke about, but it’s hard to blame him for that. Apparently the Welsh accent was pretty heavy in Shakespeare’s time, but nowadays it’s far more subtle.
Thus, the Welsh jokes fall as flat as pretty much everything else in this heavy-handed comedy.
Actors’ Theatre will present The Merry Wives of Windsor through Aug. 31 at the Schiller Park amphitheater, 1069 Jaeger St. Show times are 8 p.m. Thursday-Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (including intermission). Admission is “pay what you will.” Bring a blanket or lawn chair. 614-444-6888 or theactorstheatre.org.