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The Play-Goer: Colonial Players’ The Merry Wives of Windsor

Shakespeare, like, totally amped for the ‘80s

photo by Colburn Images/ As Mistresses Ford and Page, the targets of Falstaff’s affected affection, Rebecca Downs (left) and Erica Miller lay their revengeful plot.

         The plays of William Shakespeare are often placed into more modern settings, and there couldn’t be a better match than The Merry Wives of Windsor and the 1980s. Shakespeare’s comedy stars Sir John Falstaff, who embodies the excess, greed and bombast of a decade that spawned Reaganomics, conservatism and MTV.

         With themes of love, jealousy, revenge and wealth, Merry Wives may be one of the Bard’s least respected works. But it soars in the lively and colorful production now underway at Colonial Players of Annapolis.

         Under the skilled direction of Steve Tobin, this production is a ton of fun, offering plenty of comic and musical references to the ’80s while still adhering to the words that have kept Shakespeare’s comedy popular for more than 400 years. The plot can be complicated, but its cleverness is such that it has been copied by playwrights and authors ever since. To sum up: Arriving in town penniless, Falstaff decides to improve his lot by wooing two wives married to rich husbands. They catch on, plot their revenge — and hilarity ensues.

         As Falstaff, Matt Leyendecker is joviality personified. Animated and pompous, he commands the stage with the blustering swagger that endears Falstaff to audiences. This cast is a well-oiled machine, and Leyendecker’s Falstaff is clearly at the helm. Which makes it all the more amazing that, less than a week before opening night, Leyendecker had to take over the role when the actor originally cast as Falstaff fell ill. Yet opening night went off with barely a hiccup. Kudos.

         Kudos to the rest of the cast as well. A change of the lead actor can throw a lot of things out of kilter when you’ve rehearsed for two months or more with the rhythms and pacing of a certain person at the forefront, especially when it happens so close to appearing before an audience. This cast pulled together and made the very fast transition flawless. The only hint of change showed up when Jeff Mocho — the actor brought in the Tuesday before opening to play the Master Page role vacated by Leyendecker — occasionally referred to a cleverly disguised script. It simply didn’t matter, because his characterization was spot on.

         As Mistresses Ford and Page, the targets of Falstaff’s affected affection, Rebecca Downs and Erica Miller deftly tiptoe around his ego as they lay their revengeful plot. The scenes in which they set him up, without his knowing they are fully aware of his presence, are comic brilliance.

         As Ford’s husband, Brian Binney is a whirlwind of fierce jealousy who achieves another level of comedy when he disguises himself as Master Brook to learn of Falstaff’s plans. Mark Allen effectively plays the parson Sir Hugh Evans as a drawling televangelist. Bill Fellows is very funny as the French-speaking Dr. Caius. Jean Berard does a nice job as his servant Mistress Quickly. Mary McLeod as host of the Garter Inn, the local pub where everybody knows your name, is affable and charming and loves a good prank. Richard Miller provides terrific yet subtle physical comedy as the dimwitted Slender. Drew Sharpe plays two lively roles as the big-talking Pistol, one of Falstaff’s pals, and Simple, a servant to Slender. And Richard Atha-Nicholls is Nym, another Falstaff follower who, each time he enters the Garter pub is “Cheer”-ed on loudly by the greeting, “Nym!!” Get it?

         There are others, too numerous to mention individually. But their characters are all clearly defined and thus perfectly mesh with each other, giving us a whole that is even funnier than the sum of its parts.

         As with all Shakespeare, the language of the day is brilliant, but you must pay attention or you could miss out on a terrific laugh. Which makes it unfortunate when a cast member or two cannot be heard because of a lack of volume. Colonial’s in-the-round space is intimate, but actors still must project.

         Just as the terrific cast meshes so well, so do the technical aspects of the  production. Special mention must be made of the costumes designed by Amy Atha-Nicholls. From the wide shoulder pads and fancy women’s gowns to the punk fashion that was getting its start, the color and cut of each goes a long way toward helping us believe we’re back in the ’80s. Likewise, Richard Atha-Nicholls hits all the right notes as sound designer, filling every scene change with the sound track of the decade. Mine was not the only head in the audience bobbing to the beat.

         The flexible set by Edd Miller (who also plays the doddering Justice Shallow) works smoothly, and Alex Brady’s lighting design helps illuminate things with the kind of colorful animation that marked the era.

         Tobin and company have a merry hit on their hands. The opening night performance was just about full, and once word gets out about this gem, tickets will be tough to come by. So I’d suggest calling or logging on now. 

 

About two hours and 50 minutes with one intermission. Playing thru March 23: ThFSa 8pm, Su 2pm, $23 w/discounts, rsvp: www.thecolonialplayers.org.