The Merry Wives of Windsor

Local Arts Reviews

The Merry Wives of Windsor: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Whirl

Austin Playhouse, through Feb. 16 Running Time: 2 hrs, 15 min

The jealous husband has leaped out of the laundry basket, from which he has furiously thrown every article of clothing in his frantic search for the paramour of his wife that he insists is hiding in his home. He has grabbed a rifle and discharged it into the ceiling, the thunderous blast prompting a flurry of hand-wringing from the gaggle of concerned neighbors present and spurring the entrance of a figure in a great floppy hat and voluminous black dress (a big cluster of grapes affixed to its bosom), worn to conceal the fact that the wearer is a he. But the jealous husband, mistaking the figure for an old witch -- literally -- that he despises, seizes a broom and starts to smack the backside of the large man in the dress, which prompts him to start running, which prompts the husband to chase him, which prompts the neighbors to fall in line behind them, which creates a frenetic parade of wallops, yelps, and whoops.

The scene, stuffed to bursting with broad reactions and slapstick, should make clear that The Merry Wives of Windsor, as mounted by Austin Playhouse and the Austin Shakespeare Festival, is big on comedy -- and big comedy at that. Director Guy Roberts takes advantage of the play's farcical plot and stock comic characters to go nuts, peopling it with goofs and oddballs in outrageous outfits and loading the action with as many gags, takes, and comic routines as the stage can bear. Paul Norton's Dr. Caius sports a French accent as thick as Dijon mustard. Bernadette Nason's Mistress Quickly boasts a bust ample enough to qualify for its own ZIP code. There's no aspect of the show so important that it can't be livened up with a generous helping of schtick. Here, even hair is employed for laughs. The 'do on David Stahl's Welsh priest makes him look like he stuck his head out a car window during a road race across the Bonneville salt flats.

Now, bigger isn't always better in comedy, but it seems to suit this Shakespearean romp about a big man whose big schemes land him in big trouble. When Dirk van Allen's Falstaff shows up -- on his back an avocado jacket large enough to cover an entire troop of camping Boy Scouts, on his fingers a jeweler's case of silver and turquoise rings, on his head a shaggy black rug with thick, mossy sideburns in the style of the King, baby -- and starts to warble "Love Me Tender," it makes a crazy kind of sense. This great tub of a man sees himself as a chick magnet, a world-class seducer, a hunka hunka burnin' love who can woo two wives at once with neither the wiser. Who else has that kind of charisma and sexual prowess but Elvis? In this guise (realized in gloriously appalling fashion by costumer Buffy Manners), we can immediately see that his ego matches his girth, and he's headed for a big fall.

Roberts spins the story of that fall in the era of Eisenhower and Kennedy, when Americans laughed at themselves through the boob-tube antics of assorted urban couples and suburban families. Actually, he has us view the play through the lens of those sitcoms, with the merry wives in cat's-eye glasses and furs and comparing notes on Falstaff's advances during a sojourn at the beauty parlor. Babs George and Mary Agen Cox embody these gals with an old-fashioned glee, and when they seal their plot for revenge with a spit-in-their-palms handshake, the spirits of Lucy and Ethel hover over the stage. Likewise, when Michael Hankin cranks his jealousy into a frenzy, he recalls the obsessive antics of Danny Thomas in Make Room for Daddy. Barry Miller plays Mr. Page with the cool composure -- not to mention the cardigan and pipe -- of the Robert Young/Hugh Beaumont school of sitcom dad. Scott Daigle's team-jacket-wearing cool guy Fenton and John Hoff's letter-sweater-clad über-nerd Slender look like refugees from Dobie Gillis, while Nason's Quickly might be a transatlantic Hazel. With so many familiar looks and so much broad comedy, it's like some lost Nick at Nite special, The Biggest Sitcom in the World, or a comedian-studded slapstick spectacular on the order of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

It would be so easy for all this big comedy to go awry. One mistimed gag, one slightly overwrought reaction, one momentary lag in pace, and all the humor could collapse like a house of cards. But as in those TV and film comedies of the Fifties and Sixties, the work of experienced actors keeps this fragile structure standing. Their firm grasp of character, their crisp sense of timing, their connection with the audience turn this cleverly imagined frolic into a sizable pleasure.

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The Merry Wives of Windsor, Austin Playhouse, Austin Shakespeare Festival, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Dirk van Allen, Buffy Manners, Babs George, Mary Agen Cox, Michael Hankin, Make Room for Daddy, Barry Miller, Robert Young, Hugh Beaumont, Scott Daigle, John Hoff

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