The Merry Wives of Windsor tells the story of Sir John Falstaff — but not the cunning, cowardly and hilarious knight of the history plays, the Lord of Misrule who led astray a young Henry V and represented all the joys of drunkenness and revelry. No, this version is pretty diminished; he's nothing but a fat, cash-strapped lecher who decides to replenish his coffers by wooing two well-to-do — and entirely faithful — wives. The women learn of his intentions and embark on a sustained campaign to humiliate him. As with most traditional jokes, the humiliation has to occur three times: Falstaff gets hidden in a laundry basket and dumped in the river; dressed up in women's clothes and beaten; and, finally, pinched by children pretending to be fairies and exposed for the lecher he is to the entire town. Of course, the original Falstaff would never have been duped like this, and if he were, he would certainly have gotten his revenge.
There's also a subplot about Anne, the daughter of one of the wives, whose father wants her to marry a mindless country boob while her mother inclines toward a frantically gesticulating French doctor (remember, the English of Shakespeare's time despised the French). Naturally, Anne ends up with the handsome fellow of her own choice. Around these people swirls a clique of peculiar characters of various types and regions. And one of the women's husbands is so insanely jealous that he's driven to disguise himself and bribe Falstaff to test his wife's virtue.
In short, this is a bawdy comedy, filled with the kinds of jokes Elizabethans found irresistible but leave the rest of us scratching our heads — mispronounced words and weird accents, miscues, misidentifications and misunderstandings, the administration of sound thumpings, and lots of talk about horns and cuckoldry. Yet miraculously, David Ivers — whom we've seen many times on the stage but who's never before directed for the Denver Center Theatre Company — makes this minor play not only funny, but elegant. Yes, elegant. Where you expect heaviness, incomprehensible speech and corny jokes, you get lightness and wit.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through April 19, Stage Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
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Hugh Landwehr's set says a lot about Ivers's thinking in the way it harmonizes differing elements and eras. It shows a row of half-timbered Elizabethan houses that are completely traditional from top to middle; below that, we see a bright poster advertising the town and signaling the touristy comings and goings of a more modern era — the 1920s. Beyond the houses and fading into the background are the shapes of bronze leaves, a reminder that Windsor is surrounded by forest — and in Shakespeare, the forest is a place where magic rules, bourgeois strictures and limitations vanish, and truth is unmasked. David Kay Michelson's costumes, particularly the beautiful dresses with which he has adorned the two slim, graceful actresses who play the wives, are just as eye-pleasing and expressive as the set.
All of the main characters are well cast: Brian Keith Russell as Falstaff, Kathleen McCall and Sharon Washington as the high-spirited wives. It's a hoot to see the usually dignified John Hutton unleash his comic side as the wildly, splutteringly jealous Ford. Kathleen M. Brady is a wonderful Mistress Quickly, perpetually puzzled, strong and vulnerable at the same time; Randy Moore does well by Shallow, Philip Pleasants by Sir Hugh Evans (but, alas, no Welsh accent) and Michael Santo by Dr. Caius. On the night I attended, Tyee Tilghman took over the role of Host, and his humorous dignity provided a nice contrast to all the mad capering going on around him.
The evening's most unexpected pleasure, though, is Jeffrey Evan Thomas's Slender. This is an absolutely nothing part — a stuttering idiot, a turnip — but Thomas, attired in a costume that accentuates his improbable tallness and the size of his feet, plays the role with such presence and understated humor that even when he's doing nothing, he's insanely funny.
Many Shakespearean directors play around with time and place, often mutilating the play in the process. Ivers, though, not only strikes the right chronological note, but seamlessly marries the script's punning and dated Elizabethan humor to the bright optimism of the era of flappers and growing female independence. In doing so, he clarifies both the action and the language. And at the end, there's joy and reconciliation — including a coupling provided by Ivers rather than Shakespeare — that puts a heart-cheering cap on a satisfying evening.