Big knight: The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival

The Merry Wives of Windsor isn't one of Shakespeare's best plays. I read somewhere that it was written in response to the desire of Queen Elizabeth I to see the fat knight in love, and the plot is slight. This Sir John Falstaff isn't the one we know from the history plays — the cunning, cowardly, zesty, twistedly wise old fool who served as a kind of father figure to young Prince Hal, and whom Hal had to reject before he was fit for his kingly duties as Henry V, a rejection that broke the old man's heart. In one of many interpolations — here used for comic effect — Seth Panitch's Colorado Shakespeare Festival production of Merry Wives makes reference to the king's terrible final words to Falstaff: "I know thee not, old man."

This Falstaff is a buffoon who, motivated by greed and lust, attempts to bed two virtuous wives, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford — and the latter has a crazed, irrationally jealous husband. Revolted by Falstaff's advances, the women plot revenge, and Master Ford, his suspicions aroused, also sets a trap. Falstaff's punishment, like most corny stage jokes, comes in threes. First, he's hidden in a laundry basket filled with smelly clothes and tipped into a muddy river. The second mishap — since he never learns from experience but approaches the wives again and again — involves his escape dressed as a washerwoman while being beaten by Ford. There's a supernatural element to the third trick, involving scary fairies in a dark woodland. The Elizabethans found a lot more humor in insults, beatings and public humiliation than we tend to, and listening to the countless gibes at Falstaff's girth, I couldn't help thinking about all the current talk about body-image issues and remembering an article about kids' summer camps that have rules forbidding "body talk," whether positive, negative or neutral. Shakespeare's times were more robust. Or more cruel, depending on how you look at it.

There's also a subplot in which two clownish suitors, Doctor Caius and Slender, woo the Fords' beautiful daughter Anne, who manages to elude both and marry Fenton, the man she loves.

Director Panitch has set this tale at a Catskills hotel in 1962; Falstaff is a standup comic on the circuit. The production includes lots and lots of '50s songs; sometimes it feels as if every on-stage event is framed or punctuated by a familiar rocking tune. Also thrown in are all kinds of shticks and bits — some quite wonderful, as when Falstaff emerges from the laundry basket to dance with others before diving back in to complete his penance; some less effective — why bother bringing back that hoary old who's-on-first joke?; and others, like the faux-lyrical dance performed by Falstaff and the wives to "At Last," funny but too long. Anachronism and pop-culture references are everywhere. There's mention of the World Cup and an homage to the famous image of Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate with her skirt flying up around her. It's all very frolicky and jolly, but periodically I got so caught up wondering at the antics of the ventriloquist and his puppet or the Pastor's broad Southern accent that I forgot who these folks were and their roles in the story.

In a way, this activity is fully in the raucous, silly spirit of the original. I don't know why the Host dances like Elvis, but Benjamin Bonenfant cuts such a lively figure, it doesn't seem to matter. Why does Doctor Caius spend so much time on his golf game? Again, I have no idea, but Geoffrey Kent is flat-out hilarious teeing off. Ian Andersen's unexpected falsetto singing earns him a well-deserved round of applause. In other performances, Mare Trevathan and Vanessa Morosco temper energetic hamminess with charm and grace as Mistresses Page and Ford, respectively; Peter Simon Hilton is a hoot as Master Ford; and Kyra Lindsey and Joshua Archer make an attractive couple playing Fenton and Anne like the teen king and queen of a beach-party movie. I'd like to have seen Michael Winters's strong Falstaff given fewer tricks and more time for expression, and Mistress Quickly played by Tammy L. Meneghini with more humanity. The touching moment in which Hilton's Ford apologizes to his wife proves that an occasional glimpse of real feeling deepens comedy rather than destroying it.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman