Sir John Falstaff is a character so comically grandiose that William Shakespeare wrote an anachronistic sitcom in order to give the dude another airing. Director Todd Pieper and St. Louis Shakespeare give that sitcom, The Merry Wives of Windsor, an energetic and sharp production, one that, sadly, features a strangely subdued Falstaff. And yet it still satisfies. Go figure.
Martin Casey plays Falstaff with little to none of the bluster the character normally engenders. His Sir John is a peaceable giant, a mostly mild- mannered schemer who hatches a low-key plan to solve his financial trouble by wooing the two goodwives, Mistress Ford (Suki Peters) and Mistress Page (Jamie Marble), thereby gaining access to their sizable fortunes. There's nothing wrong with Casey's performance — in fact, he makes for a very pleasant Falstaff — but there's little sense of Falstaff's immense appetite for life's pleasures or his scintillating bravado. Here he's merely a fool, and neither a heroic nor a memorably charismatic one at that.
Shakespeare didn't call it The Merry Wives for nothing: Both Peters and Marble craft sparkling portrayals of intelligent, cunning women who quickly unravel Falstaff's plot and then mirthfully devise horrible punishments for the man that include a dunk in the Thames, a savage beating and repeated pinchings by most of the population of Windsor. Marble's Page deploys a large arsenal of wry expressions, knowing glances and ruthless smiles with exquisite comic timing, and she delivers a fantastically terrible performance when masquerading as the innocent. Peters is similarly excellent, her foolish tittering while flirting with Sir John turning to desperate cackling as she struggles to extricate herself from his clutches. Hers is a very physical performance, dancing and dodging around the big man as she simultaneously seduces and retreats, and she makes it appear effortless.
If the ladies are the main draw, Ben Ritchie's performance as Master Ford, who grows to suspect that his wife is trysting with Falstaff, is a worthy undercard. Here, in fact, is your opera buffa performance of the evening. Ritchie cuts a raving swath across the stage, spiking his dialogue with razor-sharp double takes, split-second changes of direction and a magnificently unhinged beating of a dragged-up Falstaff. Ritchie is a self-contained explosion, playing his role broadly but never pulling focus from the other performers or devolving into hamminess — and he always speaks lucidly, even when careening across the stage with truncheon a-flailing.
As with most St. Louis Shakespeare productions, there are plenty of fine performances in the large and talented ensemble. Emily Adams comically machine-guns her gossipy dialogue as Mistress Quickly, and Casey Boland sets back Franco-American relations two world wars with his goofy and heavily accented Doctor Caius, a man who mangles the language beautifully. Along with Paul Devine's Sir Hugh Evans, Boland also fights the single dumbest duel ever staged, an over-the-top farcical spat whose victor is decided via a dick-tap delivered with a Bible. That's the thing about a good sitcom: If you frontload it with enough below-the-belt jokes and ridiculous situations, the comedy sorts itself out in the end.