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Failed seductions bring big laughs in Classical Actors Ensemble's 'Merry Wives of Windsor'

Travis Voels

Travis Voels

On a beautiful Minnesota summer day, nothing goes down better than the humiliation of jealous husbands and presumptuous cads. That, at least, seems to be the lesson of the successive successes of last year’s Mixed Precipitation picnic operetta and this summer’s Shakespeare in Our Parks production by Classical Actors Ensemble.

The picnic operetta was an adaptation (via Otto Nicolai) of The Merry Wives of Windsor, set in 1970s northern Minnesota. This summer, Classical Actors Ensemble are doing Shakespeare (more or less) straight in an uproarious production bursting with creative zest.

For the free series, now in its sixth season, director Joseph Papke reliably leads accessible productions that remind audiences of Shakespeare’s timeless appeal as popular entertainment. Last year, the company even dipped a toe into the tragic with a successful open-air Romeo and Juliet. This summer, working with a play that few revere as one of the Bard’s greatest, Papke’s popped the cork on a ridiculously fun production that the exultant actors seem to hope will never end.

For all its energy, this Merry Wives takes a very different tack than the loose and deliberately overstuffed picnic operetta. Here, the overstuffing is entirely literal in a lucid narrative revolving around the character who inspired the adjective “Falstaffian”: “fat, jolly, and debauched,” per Google Dictionary.

An artificially rotund Joe Wiener has never been better, bringing deadpan comic timing to the role of a hedonistic knight whose sloppy attempt at a dual seduction sets him up for a series of increasingly outrageous humiliations by Margaret Page (Clare Boyd) and Alice Ford (Eli Sibley), who conspire to use Falstaff’s libido against him.

In the bargain, they also make a mockery of Alice’s husband, Frank (Justin Hooper), who believes his wife plans to accept Falstaff’s overtures. In a blisteringly committed soliloquy on the shame of the cuckold, Hooper channels a savage insecurity that continues to haunt even after the deception is revealed and everyone’s smiling.

Lolly Foy’s costumes, along with a bright set designed by Hooper and a few judiciously chosen pop songs, evoke a swinging-’60s milieu that’s consistently charming, never more so than in a virtuoso opening pantomime that introduces the characters and their relationships as they roll out of bed and go about their days of discipline or dissolution.

A second plot involves rivals for the hand of the independent-minded Anne Page (Bridget Foy), daughter of Margaret and her husband, George (Robb Krueger, resplendent in leisure shorts and loafers). It’s nicely acted but downplayed in this production, except for the over-the-top indignation of Doctor Caius (Daniel Kristian Vopava), a foolish Frenchman whose easily misunderstood accent gets played for all it’s worth.

Don’t miss these Merry Wives, stars of an extraordinarily enjoyable Shakespeare show that hits it, so to speak, out of the park.

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Various locations
Through July 21; classicalactorsensemble.org