Friday, September 08, 2000

Second act saves 'Merry Wives'

Playwright, troupe peak at same time

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati Shakespeare opener The Merry Wives of Windsor is a show with a split personality. The first act is so misconceived you wonder if there's a curse hanging on the first show of every season. (Remember The Tempest? King Lear?)

        Then comes a charmer of a second act, so ingratiating that all is forgiven.

        The evil spell is broken by Shakespeare himself, who finally moves his principal players to center stage for the second half; by the principal players, good enough to save the day; and even by the evening's chief miscreant, director R. Chris Reeder who piles as many engagingly goofy ideas into the second act as he does numbingly bad choices into the first.

        The Merry Wives of Windsor is a wisp of a play, wherein married ladies Mistress Page (Sherman Fracher) and Mistress Ford (Anne Schilling) decide to teach Sir John Falstaff (Nick Rose, round as a beach ball) a lesson or two when he sends them duplicate letters inviting them to join him in extramarital frolic.

        In a slight subplot, Mistress and Master Page (Brian Isaac Phillips, with a Clark Kent grin and a nice way with a waltz step) plot against each other to marry off their daughter Anne (Corinne Mohlenhoff) to suitors of their choice, while the young lady plots to hang on to true love.

Concept invites doubt

        The first act, which shoves the ladies and Sir John to the side in favor of the suitors and sundry other supporting players, is endlessly tiresome. And that's despite a delightful performance by Joe Verciglio, as a Welsh parson with a tongue-twisting dialect who is Anne's beloved, and Jeremy Dubin, who gives a deviant, Harpo Marx-esque spin to a strange little servant.

        The show is performed in baffling modern dress — the stupid suitor (Sylvester Little Jr.) is sort of Eddie Murphy playing Pee Wee Herman. Falstaff is just in from the mountains. Giles Davies, doing a dandy dirty old man, appears to be visiting from the plantation. Everybody has inexplicable accents.

        The entire concept invites doubt. How appropriate is a contemporary Merry Wives? Would these chic modern women get this steamed over an old buffoon making a feeble pass? Don't they have anything better to do?

Nicely carried slapstick

        The first act is a hodgepodge. There's a promising bit of bawd that is abandoned, a breath of suburban satire, a hint of camp, but no consistency, not even in playing style.

        The action moves into focus in the second act, and slapstick becomes the order of the evening, nicely carried out by the men of the company.

        Mr. Rose hints at pathos as Falstaff and moves his bulk believably, but he isn't aged enough for the role. Perhaps some makeup would help to make him look less the picture of youthful good health.

        Ms. Fracher and Ms. Schilling are delightful.

        Mr. Dubin gets to burn big as a jealous husband, and Ms. Mohlenhoff has a funny turn as the Pages' young son.

        Despite the fine work of most of the ensemble, what wins the audience completely is the final sequence of the play. Set deep in a “fairy”-filled forest, all is quirkily saved by volunteers from the audience playing vital roles.

        The Merry Wives of Windsor, Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival, 719 Race St., through Oct. 1. 381-2273.


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