When you’re a thin guy and wear a fat suit to play Falstaff in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” I’m going to do one of two things:
1) Think of the actor throughout the entire play as a thin guy wearing a fat suit; or 2) Completely forget he isn’t portly and get caught up instead in the silliness and “weight” of the role.
When it comes to Aaron Spjute’s performance in the brisk new Woodward Shakespeare Festival production of “Merry Wives,” I most definitely fall into the latter category. Spjute, dolled up in outlandish Edwardian England-period fashion to look like he’s carrying an extra couple hundred pounds, gives us a scampering, blustery Falstaff — one who leaps up on chairs, waddles about like an overfed rooster and sculpt-spits his most histrionic words as if he’s in a skeet-shooting competition. Considering that pretty much the whole point of this comedy is for the cast to gang up on the continually outmaneuevered Falstaff — a hapless bumbler who makes the mistake of trying to woo and fleece two of Windsor’s leading married ladies — it’s important to have an actor in the role who can aborb those blows like a cheerful punching bag. And Spjute does the honors impressively well, even though (and perhaps thanks to) the obviously added extra “pounds.”
“Merry Wives” has never been considered among the top tier of Shakespeare’s comedies, and this production doesn’t change my mind. Even with a tangle of storylines and all matters of hijinks, it’s tough to think of this romp as anything more than one big extended gag that starts to outlive its shelf life. But despite the challenges of the material, director Gabriela Lawson puts together a crisp, well-paced version of the tale. And some strong performances throughout ensure that the laughs keep coming.
I missed the first two weekends of “Merry Wives” because I was on vacation, but I got a chance to see it in its third weekend. The production continues for just three more performances: 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday
When the penniless Falstaff arrives in town, he figures he’ll make some quick bucks by seducing Mistress Page (Amelia Ryan) and Mistress Ford (Jennifer Hurd-Peterson), then stealing their husbands’ money. He launches the plot by sending letters to both women. But they’re onto him pretty fast. What ensues is basically a sort of good-natured revenge fantasy, with Falstaff subjected to a steady stream of self-inflicted degradations.
Lawson chose to set the production in fussy Edwardian England, a time which she describes in her director’s note as “very staid and proper.” It’s a successful choice. The formality of Shannon Brewington’s period costumes sets a nice tone. The early 1900s was probably the latest you could set this play and still seem plausible.
Spjute, Ryan and Hurd-Peterson form a lively trio. Some of the best bits in the show feature the banter between the two women as they hatch their various schemes. And the comic highlight, without a doubt, is Spjute’s terrific comic monologue recounting his inglorious introduction to the River Thames. (He even produces a wet fish from his ample costume, a nice sight gag.)
There are some weaker moments in the show, particularly with the young-lovers storyline. Then again, Shakespeare almost seems to forget about them, too.
Standouts in the cast include Hal H. Bolen’s pretentious Dr. Caius, Guinevere J. Thelin’s rascally Host, Chaim Harrell’s swishy Slender and Jessica Reedy’s prissy Mistress Quickly.
I also got a big kick out of David P. Otero’s harumphing Master Ford, who dons a goofy diguise to track down his supposedly philandering wife. In the Thursday performance I attended, Otero at one point pounded his cane so hard that his fake mustache/nose actually popped up on his face. A very “Merry” laugh, indeed.