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.

The plot fares better than Shakespeare's verse, however, as the young actors stumble over the Elizabethan dialogue, often causing puns to fall flat and malapropisms to be mangled. Costuming and make-up oversights result in other problems. For instance, county justice Shallow (Bill Battaglia) proclaims, "I have lived four score years and upward," although you'd never guess his eighty-something years from his youthful face and full head of dark hair. But that's nothing compared to what has become of Falstaff. Describing himself as "in the waist two yards about," Barry pats an unpadded costume that covers a stomach that looks as if it endures regular ab workouts. Given that all the dialogue regarding his great girth remains intact, this fat-free Falstaff cannot be attributed to a new interpretation. (Besides bordering on sacrilege, a thin Falstaff is comedically unsound -- imagine Stan Laurel playing Oliver Hardy's part.) Nor does Barry replace Falstaff's lost pounds with any dramatic weight. His nondescript performance turns the man who dared corrupt a king into a Civil War version of Colonel Klink from Hogan's Heroes. The complexity of Shakespeare's characters and the majesty of his poetry also get short shrift in the festival's production of Romeo and Juliet (1596). For the benefit of those who can't remember their ninth-grade English classes, fourteen-year-old Juliet (Finnerty Steeves) falls in love with Romeo (Cory Baker), the son of her family's archenemies. Shortly after secretly marrying Juliet, Romeo is banished from their Italian hometown of Verona, leading the young couple to pursue a desperate course of action that ultimately brings about, uh, tragedy.

Director Amy London's trimming of the script -- she deletes Juliet's would-be husband Paris's (Bill Battaglia) fatal trip to her tomb -- keeps the production's focus squarely on the passions of the star-crossed lovers, and Baker and Steeves's giddily hormone-charged balcony scene is a treat. In this age in which teenage girls give birth in secret, a production that underscores the intense fervor of adolescent love and its sometimes horrifying aftermath invests the old classic with new relevance. On the other hand, London's slant and her additional minor cuts create a kind of Verona 90210, and the youthful glow that infuses the production doesn't burn hot enough to stoke its dramatic fires. Thundering with self-pity and falling to the stage in tantrums of denied pleasures, the title characters come across like pampered rich kids, furious over not getting their way.

As the love story moves from mythic toward melodramatic, the minor characters strike the deepest emotional chord. Director-turned-actor Matthew Regan creates a sympathetic Friar Laurence, his well-meaning efforts to help the lovers ultimately turning to heartsick alarm. Similarly, Nell Gwynn and G. Michael McKay replace the usual cold tyranny of Juliet's parents with an understandable can't-reason-with-teenagers exasperation.

The cast, which performs the roles in both plays on alternating nights, once again has trouble finding the meaning and the meter of Shakespeare's verse, something that's even more apparent absent the camouflage of Merry Wives's slapstick. Still, like Regan, London keeps things moving too fast for this Romeo and Juliet's inadequacies to become overwhelming liabilities. Both productions get a boost from their single set (designed by Regan): Uncluttered with furniture, its five exits allow a continuous dramatic flow in front of a painted back wall (designed by David Mah) of rolling green lawns and stately columns. Likewise, Angela Thomas's delightful period costumes for both plays and John Manzelli's impressively realistic and fluid fight choreography in Romeo and Juliet lend a professional air.

The only South Florida company regularly producing the Bard, Florida Playwrights' Theatre has now presented ten of his plays. While the current festival won't satisfy Shakespeare purists, these spirited and accessible offerings should entertain the unversed.

The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Matthew Regan; with Len Barry, Nell Gwynn, and Miriam Kulick.

Romeo and Juliet.
Written by William Shakespeare; directed by Amy London; with Cory Baker and Finnerty Steeves. Through September 14. For more information call 954-925-8123 or see "Calendar Listings.

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