Santa Cruz Shakespeare hits new comic heights with ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’
If we knew that William Shakespeare had looked into the future and predicted the existence of the Marx Brothers, Tina Fey, Bill Murray, Peter Sellers and Monty Python, poured their comic styles into a literary pot, and added huge helpings of shameless jokes at the expense of the Welsh, Irish, and French, it would go a long way toward explaining The Merry Wives of Windsor. And in the hands of Santa Cruz Shakespeare, under director Kirsten Brandt, the play that was good enough for Queen Elizabeth I (who attended the play's premiere on April 23, 1597) continues to deliver, having left opening night’s crowd limp with laughter. Let's just say it’s a hit.
All the jolly slapstick and sight gags in Merry Wives are employed to make a fool of one ripe target—Sir John Falstaff. Clad in scarlet uniform, pith helmet, and brandishing an enormous cigar, Richard Ziman plays Shakespeare’s enterprising lout with absolute and confident abandon. The redwood stage, as well as its company of players, practically levitates when he’s on board hatching his plan to seduce two middle-class matrons of Windsor out of their husband’s wealth. Once the wives, Mistress Ford (Julie Coffey) and Mistress Page (Greta Wohlrabe), get wind of his scheme, Falstaff himself becomes the target of the caper.
The central plot is cross-cut and sabotaged at every turn by a cast of supremely witless boobs—the Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans (a dazzling display of physical humor by Kit Wilder); a French physician (the hysterical William Elsman, who channels both Peter Sellars and Sasha Baron-Cohen in mangling the King’s English); and a “helpful” go-between Mistress Quickly (Carly Cioffi, energetic and brisk in her verbal butchery).
The play builds its treasure of ambidextrous trickery thanks to a few key and brilliant performances. Playing at least two different sets of helpful nitwits are Brandon Blum, Mike Ryan, and Lucas Brandt as the immortal trio of Pistol, Nym and Bardolph—committing logo-larceny with every utterance, and matching the wordplay with physical pyrotechnics. The show-stopping scene in which Falstaff is spirited away in a wicker laundry basket is brilliant in every dimension. But Blum and Brandt's priceless body language provides the coup de grace of drop-dead hilarity.
Cross Laverne and Shirley with Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett, and you have the flashy duo of Coffey and Wohlrabe, who dispatch the men—husbands, village idiots, and of course Sir John—with impeccable timing and obvious relish. Yet if I had to single out one moment of almost unbelievable comedic delirium, it would be the stunning scene in which Mistress Ford’s husband (Mark Anderson Phillips) disguises himself and approaches Falstaff with a plan for entrapping both the seducer and his merry prey. Phillips tears up the redwood glen with an arsenal of vocal acrobatics, lurches, stutters, tics, and twitches John Cleese would kill for. The opening night audience was flat-out undone by this actor’s chops. Kudos to the entire company, and as for the robust and ribald Ziman—whose well-timed wit and well-placed corpulence commands this play from start to finish—as the play says, the world’s his oyster!
Shakespeare at his silliest, naughtiest, and wisest—to see this Merry Wives is to enjoy the birth of fifth grade humor, scripted by a genius.
Santa Cruz Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare, directed by Kirsten Brandt, runs through August 10 at the Festival Glen at UCSC. For tickets, go to santacruzshakespeare.org.