A couple seasons ago, director Tracy Young lit up the GLT stage with a boffo reinterpretation of The Taming of the Shrew. And it was lauded by this reviewer for its outrageous and mostly successful, “balls out, imaginative” production.
Well, sometimes when you go balls out, you run the risk of getting something snagged in a zipper, as happens in the current modernized staging of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Sure, there are plenty of outrageous and off-the-wall moments in this exercise, often tumbling one atop the other.
But the supposed humor is consistently lacking in wit (a “cut the cheese” joke, followed helpfully by a fart reference, for the slow of mind) while the puns (“Hot venison for dinner?” “Oh, dear!”) feel carefully manufactured. You don’t have to be a Shakespearean purist to want something more than that, in a piece that dares to rewrite (or write alongside) the Bard.
This Wives is larded throughout with attempts at humor circa the late 1940s (although the set by Rick Martin evokes the clean, stark lines of a later time). The denizens of a small Wisconsin town are dealing with the personage of Mr. Falstaff, a Hollywood-style raconteur who is in town trying to reignite his career. He decides to put the moves on two local married women, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, using his ineffable charm and ample girth to win them over and gain access to their bank accounts.
Mr. Ford (a hyperventilating Lynn Robert Berg) goes nuclear with his jealousy when he learns about Falstaff’s plans, and they both share unfortunate encounters with a rolling dumpster.
There are still some of Old Will’s lines in the play, and they ring true and charming. But finding them amidst all the hee-haw of this bloated extravaganza becomes a rather odious task, like picking whole kernels of sweet corn out of a cow pie.
For silly stuff to work on stage, it has to have sharp and genuine wit, which is on display in plays such as Spamalot, Urinetown, and Avenue Q. Otherwise, it’s just a collection of old jokes lashed together loosely with mugging and forced gaiety. It's the "try to do something funny here" school of acting.
Besdies a lack of wit, genuine or otherwise, this version of Wives is bereft of any sense of control, which is necessary for humor to work effectively (and which was present in the much more successful Shrew). Young throws everything at the theatrical fan, including slapstick (yes, there’s a pie in the face), and funny dances and walks (but not funny like Monty Python).
There are also bad French accents (often unintelligible mash-ups of Pepe Le Pew and Inspector Clouseau—but not as cute as the former or as hilarious as the latter). Tom Ford as Dr. Caius and Tracee Patterson as Madame Quickly are saddled with the task of hauling those accents around, and unfortunately the works shows.
As for the Wives, Jodi Dominick as Mrs. Page and Laura Walsh Berg as Mrs. Ford over-emote as the concept dictates, leaving the sly humor Shakespeare intended floundering in the wake of hissing catfights and such.
Of course, the rotund Falstaff is at the center of this melee. But Aled Davies, a most accomplished actor, seems like an unsuspecting fellow who stumbled into the wrong party. He always seems a bit too natty and uptight for the carousing and impulsive drunkard. For instance, his scene climbing out of the dumpster garbage should be a howl, but instead it just feels a little pathetic. Instead of cackling at the foolish plight of this adorably pompous ass, you want to help clean him up, straighten his tie and hand him his briefcase.
All that said (and still leaving a lot unsaid, as we won’t go into detail about the Magic Trick! Canned Laughter! Food Fight!), Young and GLT should be thanked for trying to breathe new life into Shakespeare. Taking risks is what good theater is all about. Because, done right, an audacious adaptation of Shakespeare can work just fine. This time, however, their Merry Wives is a witless spit-take.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Through November 2 at Great Lakes Theater, Hanna Theater, 2067 E. 14th St., 216-241-6000.