Shakespeare Theater of New Jersey serves up the Bard’s spirited romp “The Merry Wives of Windsor” as its 43rd season opener. The blowsy Sir John Falstaff of the “Henry” dramas is given free comic rein in this farce, said to have been written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I for a Christmas gathering at Windsor Court. Eric Hoffmann gives a robust account of the victimized rotund knight in a production heightened by color and dash.
A weakness in this production’s mischievous plotters is the manipulative, conniving Windsor wives, who engage in practical jokes to humiliate vain Falstaff. Randy Danson as Mistress Page and Allison Daugherty as Mistress Ford are politely restrained, lacking a clear sense of required devilry. It might be that director Jason King Jones wanted to establish a groundingcontrast to the broad parade of Windsor fools he has so deftly assembled.
Hoffmann’s lusty Falstaff has the right balance of romantic fervor and foolish daring. Taking refuge from a distrusting husband, Falstaff is squeezed into a basket of dirty laundry and dumped into the Thames; the spindly servants make a very funny exit as they attempt to carry the burdensome load to the river.
Frank Ford’s ill-tempered befuddlement is realized with extravagant flair and zest by James Michael Reilly. Other deliciously cartoony perfs are Robert Hock’s doddering Justice Shallow, Dana Smith-Croll’s garrulous go-between Mistress Quickly and David Foubert’s outrageous foppish French master of malapropisms Doctor Caius.
No player is left out in Jones’ rompish staging. The spirited ensemble gleefully cavorts in a production he has infused with broadly comic high energy.
Much of the staging’s success must be credited to its outstanding visuals. The rich Elizabethan togs by Maggie Dick could have been borrowed from an old MGM Technicolor swashbuckler. Everybody looks elegant in hoop skirts, brocaded tunics, capes and knickers.
The peaked wooden arches and high walls that frame the pub’s tankard atmosphere provide a comfortable terrain for actors, while the softly burnished lighting design eases the madcap pace for the sprawling assemblage of lovers and fools.