As the play that Shakespeare wrote in the greatest haste (deadline pressure imposed, they say, by Queen Elizabeth who wanted to see Falstaff in love), "The Merry Wives of Windsor" obliges a director to make some drastic decisions early in the game.
With subplots that go nowhere, characters that bear mismatched traces of some unknown source play, and general lack of polish, this minor Shakespearean work demands the hacking and slashing and shaping of a sensitive and theatrically adept editor.
Kathryn Long has done a superb job with this University at Buffalo, Shakespeare in Delaware Park play, which launches the 15th season of such productions. She makes Shakespeare's intertwining plots hold together like two hands clasped.
The play is basically divided into two simultaneous actions. In the first, Sir John Falstaff, an ill-bred bucket of guts, gets it into his head that two married women of Windsor, Mistresses Ford and Page, have eyes for him. Hoping to test their virtue, he writes identical mash notes to each. Insulted, the Merry Wives set out to teach Sir John a lesson, enlisting the services of Mistress Quickly as a go-between. Meanwhile, a plot unfolds in which Anne Page, daughter to Mistress Page, has three suitors, each of whom also seeks Mistress Quickly's help.
Long has directed for clarity, relegating the bulk of the broad physical comedy to the plot of the three suitors, treating the Merry Wives plot more like a comedy of manners. Though the technique serves the vital function of keeping the two plots distinct, it reaps mixed results theatrically. At times the difference in tone between one plot and the other is less like the traditional division between highbrow and lowbrow, and more like the difference between watching the starting team and the reserves.
Perhaps it's a quirk of the difficult outdoor playing space, but while sections of the piece that depend on language snap and sizzle, sections that depend on visual comedy and burlesque tend to fizzle. The most satisfying performances all correspond to the plot of the two wives. Richard Wesp is outstanding as the uptight and exasperated Frank Ford, a man convinced that his wife is cheating on him. He plays Shakespeare as if it were Noel Coward, bringing to the role a vigor and precision that, had she been in Delaware Park Tuesday night, might have prompted Elizabeth I to request another play about Frank Ford. At times his comic thrashings tip dangerously close to the edge, but on opening night, Wesp did not stray beyond the pale.
As the Merry Wives, Bess Brown and Barbara Link LaRou are perfection. Their first entrance marks the audience's decision to like the play, and when they leave, we want them back. The two share vocal dexterity, expert timing, and exceptional charisma.
At this point, commenting on Saul Elkin's Delaware Park appearances is perhaps a bit like commenting on Pope John Paul II's Vatican appearances; he is, of course, beloved of the festival. Suffice it to say that he turns in a skillful performance and makes an engaging Falstaff.
Darleen Pickering Hummert is coquettishly adorable as Mistress Quickly. She squeezes the character for all its comic juice, and helps make the plot's permutations lucid as she plays the intermediary between everyone and everyone else.
In addition to the disparity in the execution of the two plots, the waxing and waning of the production's capacity to amuse is partly the fault of the play itself, partly the fault of the park, and partly a matter of pacing. Climactic energy does not always fall at climactic moments.
Perhaps the rough spots will even out over the next few weeks. They do little, at any rate, to distract from a very satisfying and solidly directed production in a perfect setting.
Performances continue in the Delaware Park Rose Garden off Lincoln Parkway, Tuesdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. until July 15. Pre-show concerts begin at 7:15 p.m.