Setting “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in the American Wild West invests Shakespeare’s thinnest, most weakly plotted comedy with pleasant heft. Helmer Paul Mullins’ Old Globe production keeps promising more mirth than it really delivers, but despite its dry patches, this farcical treatment of wise women and the dolts who love them should warm the heart of the lonesomest polecat.
The rough-and-ready pioneer era proves an ideal environment for Shakespeare’s challenge to the notion of prim wives as superior and merry wives as loose. Against designer Ralph Funicello’s signage collage advertising Saloon and Dry Goods, with set pieces seemingly salvaged from a rummage sale at HBO’s “Deadwood,” bustled and beribboned Mistresses Ford (Katie MacNichol) and Page (Celeste Ciulla) have their work cut out to prove their faithfulness within this brawling, male-centric community.
Shakespeare’s ordinarily confusing array of middle-class types gains clarity within the familiar Old West context. Costumer Denitsa Bliznakova has clearly had the time of her life matching colors and silhouettes to characterization: Husbands’ mercantile air marks them as ripe for robbing and cuckolding, while gartered wenches are out for fun and sissified dudes clearly make for undesirable suitors.
Most extravagant type of all, no surprise, is the lusty John Falstaff (Eric Hoffmann) as a long-tressed, goateed Buffalo Bill whose bulk suggests an actual buffalo nesting inside his long johns. There’s tireless gusto in his attempts to pounce on the merry wives, only to be beaten down and humiliated each time.
In truth, he’s too well turned out: Hoffmann could do more to show us the panting greasiness beneath the confident swagger. But though this Falstaff may be a shadow of the titanic figure who marches through both parts of “Henry IV,” an undeterred Hoffmann plays him full-bodied. His every entrance is welcome.
He’s fortunate in his foils as well, with Ciulla particularly adept at walking the fine line between modesty and wit. MacNichol’s 19th century coquetry comes in handy when the wives bamboozle Falstaff with bogus narratives enacted in high melodramatic style.
MacNichol twirls a pistol with the best of ’em, too — an early sign that these are women not to be underestimated.
Unfortunately, the production too often feels underpopulated (its Garter Inn must be the least patronized saloon in Western history) and wan, in part because it’s undermusicalized. The few scenes to which composer Christopher R. Walker has applied live or recorded accompaniment work considerably better than the silent ones; Mullins would’ve been wise to bite the bullet and specify beginning-to-end underscoring.
Mullins has also robbed the play of its only antagonist by turning Ford (Bruce Turk) — the husband whose unwarranted jealousy is the play’s sole dramatic engine — into a self-pitying milquetoast inspiring neither fear nor pity. Keeping the tension high calls for a rip-roarin’ Yosemite Sam, not the meek Ruggles of Red Gap offered here.
Though they can’t propel the action the way Ford should, a gallery of grotesques provides delight en route. Wynn Harmon’s caricature of a French doctor surely channels the spirit of the late Harvey Korman, while Jonathan McMurtry’s ornery Shallow seems to have stepped out of a Frederic Remington painting while hitting his head on the frame.