Shake and Not Stirred

Looking for something different, I turned to the movie listings. Bad idea. Speed 2, Batman and Robin, George of the Jungle: a bevy of tired sequels and spinoffs that sent me fleeing back to the theater capsules, where I opted for Shakespeare. Ahhhh, why bother with Hollywood hacks when the world's greatest dramatist is around? And yet Florida Playwrights' Theatre's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor (currently being presented with Romeo and Juliet in the Hollywood-based company's hit-and-miss Fourth Annual Shakespeare Festival) stands as a reminder that even the Bard wasn't above recycling his characters and riding on the coattails of his competition.

In 1592 Elizabethan audiences flocked to see The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, an anonymously written play that details King Henry V's battlefield triumphs in the Hundred Years' War. After a revised version, Harry the V, filled seats three years later, Shakespeare set about adapting the same historical events for his theater company, luring the public into paying to see one of show biz's first blockbuster trilogies: Henry IV, parts I and II (1597), and Henry V (1599). Rich with stirring poetry, finely drawn characters, and compelling plots, Shakespeare's histories bear little resemblance to the earlier chronicles, except for their inclusion of one very popular fat rogue. Audiences expected to see Sir John Oldcastle, the obese reprobate who shares Henry's young and wild days, and Shakespeare complied by creating one of his best-loved characters, Sir John Falstaff.

In fact, in early performances of Henry IV, parts I and II, the Falstaff character was still called Oldcastle, and it's thought that Shakespeare changed the name only after the descendants of the real Sir John Oldcastle complained that their ancestor was being slandered. (Not that the family overreacted. Victor Hugo, whose novel Les Miserables would spawn its own theatrical retread, wrote in a 1864 essay: "Falstaff -- glutton, poltroon, savage, obscene, human face and stomach, with the lower parts of the brute -- walks on the four feet of turpitude; Falstaff is the centaur man and pig.")

Audiences couldn't (still can't) get enough of him. For example, in Kenneth Branagh's 1989 film version of Henry V, a play in which Falstaff's death is reported but the character is never seen, the director inserted a Falstaff flashback lifted from Henry IV, Part I. And Branagh's film was not the first time Falstaff landed in unusual surroundings: It's been said that Queen Elizabeth I was so great a Falstaff fan that she commanded Shakespeare to write a play depicting the corpulent knight in love. True or not, sometime in 1597 Shakespeare concocted his comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, revolving around Falstaff. Four hundred years later, Shakespeare's spinoff still shows plenty of life, as evidenced by Florida Playwrights' Theatre's rambunctious staging, which threatens to burst the seams of its small storefront playhouse.

In a production that owes as much to Mack Sennett as to Shakespeare, the cast's slapstick antics sometimes substitute pratfalls for poetry, but the end result is entertaining nonetheless. Transported from England circa 1400 to the early days of the American Civil War, this Merry Wives finds Confederate officer Falstaff (Len Barry) on leave in the Southern town of Windsor. Ever on the lookout for someone to pay his bar tab, Falstaff sets his sights on two rich wives, Mistress Ford (Nell Gwynn) and Mistress Page (Miriam Kulick). Mistakenly believing that they have been flirting with him, he sends an identical fill-in-the-blank love note to each, then describes his scheme to his cohorts Nym (Joshua Miller) and Pistol (Paul Waxman) this way: "I will be cheater to them both, and they shall be exchequers to me; they shall be my East and West Indies, and I will trade to them both." The two outraged women, having compared letters, spend the rest of the play humiliating Falstaff by orchestrating several botched seductions.

As the merry wives, the irrepressible Gwynn and Kulick make Shakespeare's convoluted plot seem like an episode of I Love Lucy; they race around the stage and frantically try to keep their activities hidden from their husbands, Master Ford (Paul Thomas) and Master Page (Robert Hooker). That becomes somewhat difficult when the insanely jealous Ford dons a disguise and pays Falstaff to test his wife's fidelity, making for many of the production's funniest moments. Scrunching his neck down into his collar in an effort to contain his increasing rage, Thomas resembles a cartoon character, steam billowing from his ears seconds before he blows his top.

The comedy's subplot about the marriage of Mistress Page's daughter Anne (Ivonne Paelez) also brims with zany performances, notably that of David Hernandez as the duel-happy Doctor Caius, who hysterically fractures Shakespeare's verse with his thick French accent while he bludgeons the air -- and anyone who doesn't move fast enough -- with his rapier. And Angela Thomas (as Caius's servant Mistress Quickly) puts the broad back into broad comedy as she rolls her hips and plays matchmaker with earthy abandon.

In addition to conjuring the production's winsome comedic tone, director Matthew Regan makes all the silliness seem less contrived by setting the play in the Civil War era: Of course the lecherous soldier would mistake coquettish repartee for romantic advances, just as surely as the two Southern belles would be spitefully indignant.

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