The Merry Wives of Windsor, the opening show of the 20th season of the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane University, is like a collaboration between the Swan of Avon and the Marx Brothers. Sir John Falstaff, the fat scoundrel who reveled with Prince Henry in Shakespeare's history plays, is second fiddle to no one in this romantic farce. It is said, perhaps apocryphally, that Queen Elizabeth commissioned the play because she wanted to see Falstaff in love.
Danny Bowen gives a commanding and hilarious performance as Falstaff, but love is not a driving force in the drunkard's life. He is broke and sees feigning love for two wealthy married women as a way to improve his fortunes. He sends both women identical amorous letters requesting a rendezvous.
Mistress Page (Rebecca Frank) and Mistress Ford (Cassie Worley) soon realize they are being wooed simultaneously and determine to have their revenge on the roue. There are many plots and subplots and twists and turns along the way. These complications don't lessen the audience's enjoyment, but would make for an incomprehensible summary. So I'll just hit a few of the high notes.
In the most famous episode, Mistress Ford entices Falstaff to pay her a call, telling him when she'll be alone. Unfortunately, Master Ford (Casey Groves) visits Falstaff in disguise and learns about the scheme. Acting in concert, the wives scare Falstaff into thinking he's about to be discovered. They offer a huge hamper of dirty laundry where he can hide — but they previously told their servants to dump him into the Thames River. That's just the beginning of his woes, but money and mischief are a way of life to Falstaff. He continues trying to achieve his goal with an admirable fortitude.
One of the interesting aspects of the play is that it's set in a middle-class town in England during Shakespeare's time and gives the audience a glance of Elizabethan society.
A major subplot involves the wooing of Anne Page (Susan Lanigan), the daughter of Mistress Page. Anne loves the only suitor that neither of her parents will accept, but, being a comedy, love prevails.
Director Clare Montcrief assembled a top-notch cast and keeps the action moving. As is always the case, Shakespeare invents too many characters to give individual plaudits. In addition to the actors already named, however, James Bartelle (a parson), Burton Tedesco (a French doctor), Erin Cessna (a servant) and Carl Palmer (Master Page) deserve notice for their efforts. Leah Farrelly designed the apt set, Kirche Zeile did the costumes and Marin Sachs was in charge of sound and lights.
Critics generally don't rank The Merry Wives near the top of Shakespeare's works. Certainly, it lacks the lyric genius of A Midsummer Night's Dream, for instance. But a thanks is due to the Shakespeare Festival for providing an opportunity to see this rarely produced play in New Orleans. — Dalt Wonk