In its publicity materials, the St. Louis Shakespeare Company calls its current production, The Merry Wives of Windsor, an "Elizabethan I Love Lucy," and it's an apt comparison. Merry Wives is a light, situation-driven domestic farce, complete with scheming husbands and wives, funny accents and misunderstandings that could be cleared up if people would just talk to each other instead of assuming mistrust and deceit. The SLSC production, under the direction of Milt Zoth, starts slowly, picks up as the plot machinations kick in and, ultimately, thanks to some solid lead performances, delivers a very satisfying evening of entertainment.
Another appropriate sitcom analogy might be Maude, for, like that eponymous spinoff of All in the Family, Merry Wives was created to showcase a popular character. According to legend, the rogue Falstaff made such an impression on Queen Elizabeth I in the Henry IV plays that she requested a story featuring Sir John "in love." Obviously, when a queen requests a spinoff, you don't say no.
Here Falstaff becomes the butt of his own convoluted plot when he decides to woo the two merry wives of the title by sending them the Shakespearean equivalent of form letters. Centuries before word processing, Falstaff has "a thousand of these letters, writ with blank space for different names." Convinced they've been flirting with him, he hopes the wives will open not only their beds but their husbands' purses. When Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page literally compare notes, however, and realize what the repulsive Falstaff has done, they hatch a Lucy/Ethel plan to get even. Oh, those crazy girls!
The SLSC production, for no apparent reason, is set in 1840, at the beginning of Victoria's reign. It gets off to a bumpy start; there are lots of characters and story threads to introduce, and unfortunately this task falls largely into the mouths of the actors least equipped for it. The skills of the cast vary widely, and too often the actors themselves don't seem to understand the meaning of what they're saying, much less to be able to share it with the audience.
But with the appearance of Donna Northcott and Teresa Doggett as the smart, scheming Mmes. Page and Ford, the play takes off. Northcott and Doggett are delightful. Their scenes together make the evening soar, and they're both skilled enough with the language to milk every nuance of story and comedy. Mitch Herzog is solid and convincing as the down-to-earth Mr. Page, a man confident in his wife's loyalty. He's the perfect foil to the anxious, jealous Mr. Ford, played in a standout performance by Todd Gillenardo. Gillenardo gives the play an emotional center, and the soliloquy that ends Act 1, when he falls apart before our eyes, is a highlight. Underneath the comic hysteria, he shows us a real love for his wife that's driving the jealousy. If only Zoth could mine an equal complexity from some of the other actors, the production would be even more successful.
As Falstaff, Mike Crockett starts off rather weak but grows on you as the evening goes on. He has the right physical attributes, but his Falstaff is more bumbler than braggart, and we need to see Sir John on his high horse before we can enjoy watching him yanked from the saddle. Vocally, Crockett too often falls into a rhythmic rut and swallows the ends of his lines.
Like all good sitcoms, Merry Wives has a B-story; this one involves the pursuit of the beautiful and well-endowried Anne Page (Sara Renschen) by three different suitors: Slender (Kerry Burns), who is her father's choice; the French Dr. Caius (Jason Cannon), whom her mother favors; and Fenton (John Spernoga), her own true love. This subplot is the weak link of the production, and a C-plot, the feud between the Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans (Dave Brink) and Dr. Caius, adds nothing but confusion. Although humor derived from outrageous accents can be funny, there's a fine line between outrageous and unintelligible. Brink and Cannon would do well to slow down and make more specific choices; Shakespeare has given them material Monty Python would have a ball with, and they rush through it. Fortunately, flitting between the separate stories as messenger is a charming Gwen Kelso as an opportunistic but appealing Mistress Quickly. Kelso is very good, her objectives clear, her language strong.
When Zoth and his actors emphasize plot and story, the play is mostly successful. Too often the actors in the minor roles replace character with attitude. Dumb-shows during the set changes are meant to enhance the story but left some in the audience asking their friends what they had missed. The tech elements are good; lighting design, like rock drumming, shouldn't be noticed, and Glenn Dunn's is excellent without being obtrusive. The costumes, designed by Teresa Doggett, help define the characters, and the simple, functional set is by Lonna Wilke.
Merry Wives is mostly prose, with little blank verse, a reflection of the play's milieu in the English middle class (the only Shakespearean comedy set in a nonroyal world). In many ways, the play is about language itself, how it's abused, malformed and generally not up to the task of bringing human beings to a mutual understanding. As in Lucy, revenge is the central motivator in Merry Wives, the desire to "get even with the boys." But unlike the TV show, where mistrust is a given, Shakespeare has more hope for relationships. When the plots finally come together in the last scene and Anne elopes with her beloved Fenton, the moral is clear: Young love conquers all not because it's pure but because it's honest. While the old folks have been busy deceiving each other, the young lovers have been speaking their hearts and so are rewarded with happiness. If only all men and women could just sit and talk to each other openly and honestly, without deceit. But then, of course, there would be no I Love Lucy, no Merry Wives, and where would be the fun in that?