A rumpled Tom McGowan (left) stars in "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Photo by Rich Soublet II
It is said that Shakespeare wrote “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the behest (demand?) of Queen Elizabeth I who wanted a play about the Falstaff character from the “Henry” histories dabbling at love. The Bard, the story goes, had only a couple of weeks to comply.
The result was “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a trifle that finds the corpulent Sir John Falstaff pitching woo (or haplessly trying to pitch it) to the married Mistress Ford and Mistress Page.
Why it takes five acts to dramatize the misadventures of “Merry Wives” is a mystery. It can only be attributed to Shakespeare’s prolificacy. It’s a frequently funny but highly redundant comedy.
Perhaps knowing this, the creative team behind the Old Globe’s Summer Shakespeare Festival production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has chosen to go the route of the madcap ‘50s sitcom (see “I Love Lucy”). Sight gags and bits of shtick abound. The only thing missing is a laugh track.
The motif is a mashup -- in costumes, sets and timely “modifications” to Shakespeare’s script -- of the wholesome postwar decade of “Lucy” and “Leave It to Beaver,” the classic American drive-in diner, and the rebel spirit of James Dean and Elvis.
Director James Vasquez gives his large cast full, free rein. To some extent, that works just fine: As the wives courted by Falstaff who are then determined to exact delicious revenge on him (that’s it: the entire, paper-thin plot), Angela Pierce (as Mrs. Ford) and Ruibo Qian (as Mrs. Page) are wily and formidable schemers in the Lucy-and-Ethel tradition. This production’s Falstaff, Tom McGowan, lopes along like a big unmade bed, and he’s so un-lecherous acting that you almost feel sorry for his being duped by the two wives. McGowan never overplays his hand, regardless of the ridiculous situations Falstaff finds himself in, whether it’s dressed up like an old woman, antlered like Herne the Hunter, or climbing into a laundry basket reeking of soiled clothing.
Conversely, Jenn Harris’ Mistress Quickly is played so broadly she makes McGowan look sheepish in their scenes together. And Jesse J. Perez’s French accent as Dr. Caius is pure Pepe Le Pew.
The genuine star of this “Merry Wives,” with apologies to the very good McGowan, is the revolving, multi-scene set created by Diggle. It’s one of the best and most versatile I’ve ever seen in a Summer Shakespeare production at the Globe. There’s of course the quintessential ‘50s diner, with soda fountain, flanked by palm trees. The two-story digs of the Pages and Fords is just a rotation away, as is Windsor Park, site of the culminating teasing dance of the “fairies.” The seamless scene changes allow the second half of the story to unfold just as seamlessly, making Act Two of the show the swifter and more engaging.
Lex Liang’s costumes for all are delightfully evocative of the period. Each outfit reflects the nature of the character, from Mistresses Ford and Page’s smart dresses to the leather and denim worn by Fenton (Jose Balistrieri), the Fonzie-like suitor of the Pages’ daughter, Anne.
Under the direction of sound designer Melanie Chen Cole, the action is punctuated by the rumble of a motorcycle, the timely gong of a clock and musical transitions that resurrect rock ‘n’ roll oldies of the decade.
If you’re getting the impression that this “Merry Wives” is better served by its technicals than its narrative heft, you’d be right. It’s lightweight and diverting summer fare but rarely as hilarious as it hopes to be.
There’s a painting somewhere by David Scott depicting Queen Elizabeth I watching a performance of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Globe Theatre in London. It’s hard to tell if she’s as smiling in it. We will never know.
We do know this: William Shakespeare was her dutiful subject.
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” runs through Sept. 3 on the Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Stage in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.