For one of New York City’s first major theater events in 16 months, eager audiences cannot do better than reveling in the natural splendors of Central Park’s Delacorte Theater for the gleeful, spiritualized, comical Shakespeare re-do “Merry Wives.” Beyond the re-ignition of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park and the novelty of welcoming back crowds to what was supposed to be a post-pandemic setting (thanks, delta variant, for making sure we mask up in August humidity), “Merry Wives” is a genuine marvel: a smartly clever clash of cultures, changing attitudes, and all the rich ways in which West African immigrants have made South Harlem their home. Sure, there may be more goofy revenge fantasies and farcical jealousies played out in “Merry Wives” than a season of “Real Housewives,” but there is more joy to behold here than bitchiness or recrimination.
Directed by Saheem Ali, who’s originally from Kenya, and written by Ghanaian-American playwright/adapter Jocelyn Bioh, “Merry Wives” feels personal, even reverent — from its proud, kingly lords of the manor and the women whom they must please, to the handsomely dressed neighborhood pastors and high priests. That there are added plotlines regarding long-overdue acceptance of same-sex couples within their own families is as much about machismo-driven traditionalism’s changing mores as it is funky, lively theater. One of the best, least comic lines in “Merry Wives” comes warmly from a father (Mister Kwame Page, as played by Kyle Scatliffe) to his daughter (Anne Page, played by Abena), reckoning with his own traditionalism while addressing such love: “What cannot be eschewed must be embraced.”
Bioh’s “Merry Wives” puffs much-needed new life into what has always been one of Shakespeare’s minor works and makes it ring out like a major chord, incorporating West African patois and Black American reference points (from Motown to Jam & Lewis to hip hop) in joyful unison. Her remixed script is full of lush lyricism and driven by a forceful commitment to portraying an immigrant community in all its lively facets, but make no mistake: Bioh is as dedicated to laugh lines as she is to the story of West Africans’ striving and thriving in America.
Following Shakespeare’s lead, Bioh’s “Merry Wives” examines class and wealth at street level with “respect” being the primary coin of the realm, and “Merry Wives” characters such as Falstaff being the holder of the purse — or the guy most looking for bank.
As crafted by set designer Beowulf Boritt, this corner of Harlem centers around a family-run pharmacy, a family-run laundromat and a family-run hair salon, all neighbors on the same block. Costume designer Dede Ayite gives us colorfully appointed West African immigrants in traditional garb, designer label fashionistas, hip hop gear fanciers and everyday people, blended into one friendly mix.
Sometimes they roar in protest. Black Lives Matter becomes a crucial part of Bioh and Ali’s “Merry Wives” near its gorgeous, tree-lined finale with an impassioned speech from the neighborhood friend-to-all, Mama Quickly (Shola Adewusi). BLM might, activist ardor, the right to live freely without violence, and the West African/South Harlem spiritual experience is tied together in a fashion deeply rooted in the voice of the gods and those who heed their words.
The man most forced to heed those words is the legendary hedonist John Falstaff, the popular character Shakespeare lifted from his own “Henry IV.” Among all the revisionist figures in “Merry Wives,” none are more spirited, sharp and silly than Falstaff.
A kingly role even at its most foolhardy, Falstaff is embodied, nobly and uproariously, by Jacob Ming-Trent as a baggy shorts-wearing, old-school hip hop/R&B-crooning lover man whose lust for two married women — the warm Madam Ekua Page (Pascale Armand) and the magnetically frenetic Madam Nkechi Ford (Susan Kelechi Watson) — knows no bounds. As the boastfully confidant Falstaff, Ming-Trent woos both wives so blithely and brazenly that he can hardly see that one jealous husband (Gbenga Akinnagbe’s Mister Nduka Ford) has created his own scheme to catch Falstaff in the act. Only the smarts of the wives devising their own revenge plots against the repeatedly stupid (or merely horny, or both) Falstaff upends the covert masquerade of Mister Ford and his less-jealous friend, Mister Page.
The ensemble cast fits together as snugly as a jigsaw puzzle, and tells a physically comic, smartly humorous tale of the wrongs of jealousy and the need for acceptance. It’s a message that works as elegantly now as it did in Shakespeare’s time, and when Falstaff breaks character, busts down the fourth wall and disgustedly regales the audience with tales of 16 months of boredom — no clubs, no drinking, no theater, all Netflix — Ming-Trent, Bioh and Ali make “Merry Wives’ their own for the present day.