As she folded her lawn chair after the opening-night performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor, this summer's annual offering from Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, a woman observed to her friend, "That's the nicest evening we've had here."
High praise indeed. Is this Merry Wives really the nicest evening in the checkered nine-year history of Shakespeare in Forest Park? It's hardly the most ambitious evening. This tapestry of scheming wives, jealous husbands and lying lovers is as fluffy as a dandelion spore. But in terms of production, our lady of the lawn chair might well have been correct. Although Merry Wives lacks the compelling highs of some earlier offerings, at least there are no jarring lows. It is consistently engaging.
In sharp contrast to last summer's Richard III, which was a textbook study in how not to stage Shakespeare, Merry Wives does nearly everything right. For starters, it is a highly specific production. Last summer we never even knew where we were. (England, I suppose, but where?) This summer the Elizabethan Merry Wives has been moved to St. Louis in the Jazz Age 1920s. The city's fabled beer gardens take center stage. Scenic designer Tim Case has wryly included the once-familiar Falstaff beer shield as the signage for a local pub — a sly nod to the fact that Sir John Falstaff is the play's chief maker of mischief. He is not alone. The merry wives of the title (Rachel Leslie, Jenny Mercein), they whom Sir John would bed, are equally duplicitous.
Several cast members evoke the show's jaunty flapper style, none more so than the ever-perky Trish McCall. As Mistress Quickly, the scheming servant to the lovestruck Doctor Caius, McCall delightfully delivers every line as if she's flashing semaphore flags. Steve Isom, too, is great fun as her foolish French boss. Isom's Doctor Caius is as ridiculously somber as Inspector Clouseau. And kudos to Daniel Talbott as Frank Ford, the furiously befuddled husband who thinks he's being cuckolded by Falstaff. One might imagine that Talbott spends all his free time watching Eddie Bracken's exasperated performances in the classic Preston Sturges comedies, so deftly does Talbott balance the sputtering pyrotechnics of jealousy with a slow-burning fuse.
In addition to drilling his actors to excellence, director Jesse Berger has done a terrific job of filling out the moments. If there's a pie onstage, it will end up in someone's face. If there's a butterfly net, it will find its way to someone's head. Too often such shenanigans are arbitrarily tacked on to Shakespeare to camouflage the cast's inability to handle the text; here the high jinks complement the text. And because Berger's staging is so disciplined, none of the physical comedy gets out of hand.
What's not to like? For starters, John Livingston Rolle seems a curious choice for Falstaff. While one can empathize with the fact that due to an offstage injury his right hand has been rendered immobile, the fact remains that he's — how to put this kindly? — not fat. His voice lacks the timbre of an overweight man; he doesn't move like a portly man. Instead we get a surely talented actor hidden in a fat suit. Another concern is the excessive running time. The show overstays its welcome. Act One, which lasts 85 minutes, is way too long. Some early plot confusions could have been clarified with some judicious trimming.
Finally, then, Merry Wives is very much like its leading actor: It has the feel of a thin show buried in a fat suit. Even in its current overstuffed condition it may be the most amiable Forest Park outing in years. But were it to shed at least fifteen minutes of padding, the production would be more than nice: SFSL would have a hit on its hands.