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Theatre in Review: Merry Wives (New York Shakespeare Festival/Delacorte Theater)

Pascale Armand, Susan Kelechi Watson. Photo: Joan Marcus

Merriment reigns again in Central Park with New York Shakespeare Festival making its long-awaited return to the Delacorte. Wisely choosing to keep it light for pandemic-weary audiences, the company has opted to revive The Merry Wives of Windsor -- in which Falstaff meets his match in the two matrons he attempts to seduce -- in an adaptation by Jocelyn Bioh that resets the action among the African immigrant community in Harlem. The raucous farce unfolds along the city's streets with the characters employing a patois that merges Elizabethan tropes with contemporary American slang. For example, Falstaff swears of a romantic rival, "He shall hang like LeBron James over the cuckold's horns."

The vividly evoked New York City neighborhood provides a fine setting for this comedy of multiple romantic intrigues. The title characters hatch their plots in a hair-braiding salon that also serves as a local hangout. The learned Dr. Caius -- one of several men vying for the hand of ingenue Anne Page -- operates out of a community health center. And, for the Madams Ford and Page to get Falstaff loaded into that infamous basket of soiled clothing, a laundromat occupies center stage on Beowulf Boritt's set.

Indeed, the entire production design strongly conveys Merry Wives' contemporary conceit. Boritt has come up with a photorealistic streetscape that spins and pops open to reveal many wittily detailed interiors -- most notably Falstaff's bachelor pad, an aesthetic horror dominated by pink zebra-striped walls; a giant, four-part self-portrait; and garish neon art. Jiyoun Chang's lighting seems fairly straightforward until the magical climax when, the set having disappeared, she bathes the stage and surrounding trees in luxurious colors. Dede Ayite has outdone herself on the costume front, rolling out entire wardrobes of sassy and outrageous looks for the title characters and giving everyone else a sharply defined profile. In addition to solid reinforcement for the actors, the sound designers Kai Harada and Palmer Hefferan make good use of Michael Thurber's original incidental music, which amusingly deploys a mix of pop, hip-hop, and Afrobeat sounds.

Even better is the sparkling cast, all of them obviously raring to go after a 16-month interregnum. Leading the way are Susan Kelechi Watson and Pascale Armand as Madams Ford and Page, a pair of no-nonsense schemers ready to dispatch would-be lechers and suspicious husbands to their well-deserved fates. As portrayed by Jacob Ming-Trent, Falstaff is an overfed, would-be lothario whose delusions of desirability make him ripe for the plucking. Whether stuffed into female drag that makes him look like an "old Black Dumbledore," remarking lustily that one of the wives has offered him "the leer of invitation," or bursting into an impromptu chorus of "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going," he is the living embodiment of male ego run rampant.

Clearly, the NYSF has brought out some of its best talents and a good thing, too, for, if anything, Bioh may have been a little too faithful to the original text. The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare's potboilers, a mechanical, just-for-laughs comedy with a repetitive structure. Basically, the ladies decide to play a prank on Falstaff. Then they do it again -- and, for good measure, they give it to him a third time. (The action is also top-heavy with exposition and takes forever to get going.) Layered onto these shenanigans is a notably pro-forma young-love subplot: Anne Page's parents want to marry her off to competing suitors, but she is in love with Fenton, who may be the dullest swain in the Shakespearean canon. Nobody seems invested in the outcome of this storyline, which seems like so much padding and is basically resolved with a shrug. In one of this production's happier inventions, Fenton is an androgynously styled woman, a strategy that gives MaYaa Boateng and the one-named Abena (as Anne) something interesting to play.

But if much of the laughter in Saheem Ali's production is found in the play's margins, there are a great many treasurable bits: Shola Adewusi's Mama Quickly, enervated by the plots whirling around her, taking a self-administered blood pressure test; David Ryan Smith's fussy, fey Dr. Caius, trying to get tough by menacingly deploying a set of nunchucks; Abena's turn as a professional hair braider, distracted from her job by a tasty piece of gossip; Ebony Marshall-Oliver, silently trying to budget a laundry cart that (unknown to her) contains the hidden Falstaff.

Also making fine contributions are Gbenga Akinnagbe as Mr. Ford, hoodwinking Falstaff by posing as a Jamaican rake; Phillip James Brannon's Pastor Evans, forever making peace among the squabbling characters; Joshua Echebiri as one of Anne's more reluctant lovers, goaded into wooing by Julian Rozzell Jr. as his uncle, Shallow; and Kyle Scatliffe, presiding cheerfully and authoritatively over the action as Mister Page.

If you're wondering what Bioh, Ali, and the design team do with Shakespeare's final act, which propels Falstaff into the woods for a dubious encounter with the fairy kingdom, I will say only that they shift the action to Central Park itself, and the sequence is accompanied by a scenic and lighting coup de théâtre that, combined with Mama Quickly's stirring vision of a better world, ends the comedy on a very high note. If this production coasts on its cast and production design, at least they provide sturdy support. Anyway, audiences are unlikely to complain. At the Delacorte these nights, forgiveness is in the air; celebration abounds. As Madam Page declares at the finale, "Even Falstaff can come. Because tonight, O! Tonight, we party!" --David Barbour

(10 August 2021)

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