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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
The Merry Wives of Windsor

I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass.— Sir John Falstaff
Merry Wives of Windsor
(L-R) Serena Evans, Christopher Benjamin and Sarah Woodward
(Photo: James Tramper)
Oh, sure we know those wives are merry, but what is it about Windsor that puts a song in the town's collective heart? There's the young lovers Fenton and Anne Page who sing a garden duet adapted from a poem by George Peele. There's the tavern revelry song. Even the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff himself, picks up a lute to serenade Mistress Ford, his lone act of courtly wooing. Across the board, the melodies fit.

This light and frothy production of Merry Wives, a hit for Shakesepeare's Globe Theatre and now on a short U.S. tour from Santa Monica's Broad Stage to Pace University's Schimmel Center for the Performing Arts before heading back to England, is a sprightly couple of hours of hijinks and revelry. Director Christopher Luscombe, himself a veteran comic actor, keeps the bits low key and schticky while composer Nigel Hess and his five person band underscore the action with a jaunty and decidedly period friendly soundtrack. All the better to sweep through Merry Wives's plot full of fluff.

Merry Wives, it will be remembered, puts Falstaff of the Henry IV plays front and center, in love &mdash or at least in rut &mdash wooing a pair of wives who serve him a triple helping of comeuppance in return. While this is taking place, Frank Ford, the jealous husband of one wife, makes a horse's hind end of himself trying to prove his wife and Falstaff's alleged infidelity. And Anne Page, the daughter of wife #2, must figure out a way to fend off two boob-ish suitors in order to marry her choice, the handsome Fenton. Cue, then, the music, but not &mdash as one might expect &mdash the Keystone Kop chase themes.

Love is in the Windsor air, and silliness arises when one has legitimately lost his heart (as Ford and Fenton have) and also when one is supposed to be smitten, but isn't (Abraham Slender who clumsily admits that his romantic interest in Anne Page is negligible.) Folks are stashed clandestinely away into closets or, in Falstaff's case, into an enormous buck-baskets full of dirty laundry (the play's signature piece) or into women's clothes and smuggled hastily away.

In between the antics, Luscombe sets the play to musical revelry. Musical director William Lyons and his players Paul Bevan, Philip Hopkins, Benjamin Narvey and Nicholas Perry are perched atop the revolving wooden parapet scenery designed (reconfigured for the tour, actually) by Janet Bird. There's music when folks are at the Inn of the Garter, in the garden, at the home of language-mangling Dr. Caius or in the Windsor woods.

Merry Wives can play mean-spirited. This one is gentle despite the bite that Mistress Ford (played by Sarah Woodall) and Mistress Page (Serena Evans) give to every fleshy insult they bestow on the soon-to-be-duped Falstaff. The wives' set-up of the first Falstaff gulling is pure comic melodrama, with Evans's Mistress page hamming up a tale of woe as though auditioning for a soap opera. Playing the one character whose plight becomes uncomfortably serious, Andrew Havill gives us a Ford who is suspicious but not on the point of mania. Even he has to realize it's hard to take serious a fellow whose disguise as Master Brook is a blond Fauntleroy wig.
As for Christopher Benjamin's Sir John, the bell shape (probably padding) and cowardice are certainly in evidence. Looking a bit like an un-jolly St Nicholas, Benjamin feels sometimes like he's making Falstaff a bit more studied and contemplative than the character actually is. "I do begin to perceive," Falstaff notes, several scenes too late and his humiliation complete, "that I am made an ass." Well, certainly, but there have been Falstaffs of yore for whom that realization was far more wounding or far more deserved.

Lacombe's Merry Wives is, like so much of what Shakespeare's Globe brings over, utterly delicious from Janet Bird's magnificent costumes, to the music to the production's whole playful spirit. Even brought indoors out of the -wooden O, the troupe does this so very well. With their next visit, hopefully, a tragedy.

The Merry Wives of Windsor
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Christopher Luscombe
Composer: Nigel Hess
Cast: Christopher Benjamin (Sir John Falstaff), Paul Woodson (Pistol, John), Gregory Gudgeon (Nym, Robert), Michael Garner (George Page), Serena Evans (Meg Page), Ceri-Lyn Cissone (Anne Page), Andrew Havill (Frank Ford), Sarah Woodward (Alice Ford), Philip Bird (Dr. Caius), Sue Wallace (Mistress Quickly), Barnaby Edwards (John Rugby), Peter Gale (Robert Shallow), William Belchambers (Abraham Slender), Nathan Amzi (Peter Simple),Gareth Armstrong (Sir Hugh Evans), Jonty Stephens (Host of the Garter Inn), Gerard McCarthy (Fenton)
Production Manager: Paul Russell
Set and Costume Design: Janet Bird
Lighting Design: Jason Taylor
Musical Director: William Lyons
Choreographer: Jenny Arnold
Fight Director: Malcolm Ranson
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission
Eli and Edyth Broad Stage, 1310 11th St. Santa Monica
From October 15 to October 24
Wed.-Sat. @ 7:30pm, Fri-Sat. @ 2pm., Sun @ 2 pm.
Reviewed by Evan Henerson, based on October 15 performance.
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