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All-female cast powers Shakespeare's 'Merry Wives'

Shakespeare in Delaware Park audiences have seen innumerable interpretations of Falstaff, the bumbling, boorish man-clown whose influence as a comic archetype echoes everywhere in popular culture.

But chances are they’ve never seen a Falstaff quite like the one who will barrel onto the company’s sprawling new stage on June 23, when an all-female production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” begins its monthlong run.

In the production, directed by Eileen Dugan, Pamela Rose Mangus will take on the role of the larger-than-life Shakespearean eminence in a costume designed to accentuate the character’s legendary girth and slovenly manner.

Shakespearean scholars generally classify “Merry Wives” as one of his lesser comedies. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that Queen Elizabeth commissioned it because she wanted to see Falstaff – who we learn has died in “Henry V” – in a comic or romantic role.

Whether on the queen’s orders or for his own inscrutable reasons, Shakespeare gave Falstaff some theatrical CPR for this play. It focuses on his ill-conceived efforts to seduce two well-off married women, driven by his bifurcated lust for flesh and money.

“He really wants the money, but he thinks that he’s a sex god,” Mangus said. “He’s quite the opposite, which you’ll see.”

The role of Falstaff, Mangus, admitted, was not on her bucket list. But the chance to swagger around in the character’s outsized britches was beyond her wildest dreams.

“I’ve always felt that there should be more cross-casting, because I thought we pulled off MacB really well, if I do say so myself,” said Mangus, referring to Dugan’s 2010 production of “Macbeth” in the park. “To get a chance to play certain roles that you would never have that opportunity to play? I think there’s many women capable of that.”

Ladies nightWomen deliver compelling takes on macabre 'Macbeth'

Take, for instance, Shakespeare in Delaware Park newcomers Victoria Perez and Charmagne Chi, who ham it up as a pair of lords from Spain and France.

The all-female approach for this show, decided upon by company founder Saul Elkin, comes seven years after Dugan’s well-remembered “Macbeth.”

“The biggest compliment that I got during that MacB was, ‘I forgot they were women,’” said Dugan. This time around, she added, the learning curve is even shallower because audiences have grown more accustomed to non-traditional casting.

“They know they’re in the theater, and they accept the premise of anything. In Shakespeare’s time, they were all boys. In ‘Hamilton,’ you bring out a black Aaron Burr and after two seconds they go, ‘OK, that’s the story I’m watching,’ " she said. “They’re just embodying characters. The costumes will do that work, and the text.”

Dugan has set the play in its original time and place. It is the only one of Shakespeare’s plays that is set in Elizabethan London, his own era and city. And the approach provides a smart counterpart to the way the play would have been originally produced in Shakespeare's time: with an all-male cast.

This summer, at least, juicy roles for gifted female comic actors are plentiful on the Shakespeare in Delaware Park stage.

And as for the rest of the season?

“I just think that’s the beast that we’re constantly slaying,” Perez said, “but in good company we slay that beast.”

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

Theater Preview
"The Merry Wives of Windsor" opens at 7:30 p.m. June 22 and runs through July 16 in Delaware Park. Admission is free. Call 856-4533 or visit shakespeareindelawarepark.org.

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