The Merry Wives of Windsor at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

If you are seeing the revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival you might want to bookend that experience with The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s great revenge comedy.

Being given a smashing production at the Festival Theatre under the taut direction of Frank Galati (who also adapted the Festival’s staggering production of Grapes of Wrath), Merry Wives is one of the jewels of the 2011 season.

http://youtu.be/CTuxRQ8cUJY

Galati has set the action in what looks to be the 1840s giving the proceedings a deliciously Dickensian flavor and, unlike many such time shifts in Shakespeare productions, this one works flawlessly, simply substituting Victoria for Elizabeth as “our radiant queen.” The Victorian costumes by Robert Perdziola are both sumptuous and witty and his set is simple and efficient.

Falstaff is played by long-time Festival star Geraint Wyn Davies and his performance is an unalloyed delight from start to finish. Even so, Tom Rooney almost steals the show with his splendid turn as the might-be cuckolded Ford. Laura Condlin and Lucy Peacock are spot on as the eponymous wives and Christopher Prentice and James Blendick are hilarious as the idiotic Master Slender and his long-suffering uncle, Justice Shallow. In a class by himself is Nigel Bennett as the French Dr. Caius.

The humor of Merry Wives is still astonishingly fresh after 400-odd years and could almost serve as the pilot for a new Britcom on PBS. It’s a great introduction to Shakespeare for younger audiences who will have no problem at all following the raucous action.

I wish the Herne’s Oak scene that culminates Falstaff’s public humiliation had been a bit eerier, a bit spookier, but his is a minor quibble in a production that stands as one of the Festival’s very best.

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