The conventional verdict on "The Merry Wives of Windsor" is that Shakespeare's heart wasn't in it, that he cranked it out on order from Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see "Falstaff in love."
But who knows that he didn't enjoy the assignment? Watching "Merry Wives" at the Grove Shakespeare Festival, you're struck by the geniality of its satire. Its plot may be as simple as an "I Love Lucy" script, but it's still funny to see Falstaff jump into the laundry basket. Its characters may be puppets, but they have the quirkiness of real village folk.
And their latent menace, as when they gather in Windsor Forest under the moon (a real moon at the Grove Festival) to give Falstaff his final comeuppance. It is all in fun, of course, but there's just a hint that Falstaff is lucky to have escaped with his life. One is reminded that jack-o'-lanterns were originally human skulls.
Director Thomas F. Bradac has the play in firm control at the Grove Festival. Everything's in place--the plot, the people, the village, the sight gags. (We could do with less crotch-grabbing.) Yet it's a different "Merry Wives" than one has seen.
Where many Falstaffs have had rather too much experience with women, for Harry Frazier's Falstaff, it's always the first time. It strikes him as entirely natural that those merry wives, Mistress Page (Susan Adams) and Mistress Ford (Cherie Brown), should feel the same way. Now, ladies, how shall we schedule this? What's funny about this Falstaff is his innocence--about women, about small towns. And we're not sure he learns a thing.
Without being interchangeable, Adams and Brown make their characters sisters under the skin, with the same eye for the ridiculousness of men, including their husbands. Daniel Christiaens is fine as the upstanding Page, but it's Benjamin Stewart as Ford who really does the comic honors in this show--more even than Frazier's Falstaff.
Without departing from the style of the play, Stewart evokes the fussbudget small-town bankers of a hundred Hollywood comedies. It's bad enough to find that one's wife is cheating on him. But to think that everybody in town is laughing about it behind one's back! Stewart doesn't know whether to go into a rage or to cry. Neither befitting his position as a leading citizen, he fumes instead. An accurate and very funny performance.
The smaller cartoon roles in "Merry Wives" can be a pain, when the actors try to take them too far. Bradac's cast is able to identify with them, and the fun doesn't have to be strained after, most of the time. (Bud Leslie does go a little too far as that knock-kneed swain Slender.) That doesn't mean that it's delicate--not in this play, where women can be as "merry" in their humor as men, with no suspicion of unchastity. (We might suspect Kay Berlet's Mistress Quickly just a little.)
Shakespeare also throws in lots of malapropisms, the funniest coming from Dr. Caius, a French sawbones who has somehow set up a practice in the neighborhood. Russell Terry plays Caius as a hearty, hot-tempered Canuck who has mastered this name-of-a-dog language as well as he intends to.
His enemy-of-the-week is the timid Welsh minister, Sir Hugh Evans, wittily played by Daniel Bryant Cartmell. It was also a witty idea to present Falstaff's sidekicks, Bardolph, Pistol and Nym as the Three Musketeers, with Eugene Rubenzer particularly extravagant as Bardolph. (Carl Reggiardo is Pistol and Rick Tigert is Nym.)
Shakespeare also tosses in two thwarted young lovers, whose unthwarting will coincide with Falstaff's undoing. Debbie Gates makes Anne Page her mother's daughter, and Patrick Massoth makes her lover, Fenton, a gallant storybook hero with just a touch of the klutz about him.
Stanley A. Meyer's setting also could have come from a storybook: Gepetto and Pinocchio might live here. But Karen J. Weller's costumes keep us down to earth. Pamela Rank's lighting is too orange, even for Halloween. Chuck Estes' incidental music winks, now and again, at rock. This "Merry Wives" is both merry and interesting.
'THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR' Shakespeare's comedy, at the Grove Shakespeare Festival. Director Thomas F. Bradac. Setting Stanley A. Meyer. Costumes Karen J. Weller. Lighting Pamela Rank. Music Chuck Estes. Stage manager Roy Conboy. With Harry Frazier, Patrick Massoth, Bud Leslie, Benjamin Stewart, Daniel Christiaens, Ryan Herman, Daniel Bryan Cartmell, Russell Terry, Al Constantineau, Eugene Rubenzer, Carl Reggiardo, Rick Tigert, Danny Oberbeck, Jon Palmer, William Armstrong, Cherie Brown, Susan Adams, Debbie Gates, Kay Berlet, Kay Avila, Libby Coglan, Sally Leonard, Nina Herman, Corinne Vann. Plays Thursdays-Sundays at 8:30 p.m. Closes Sept. 14. Tickets $12-$15. 12852 Main St., Garden Grove. (714) 636-7213.