One comes to "The Merry Wives of Windsor" expecting broad farce, this being arguably the most comically potent play in the canon. Rich with humor and ribald in plotline, it's among the most reliable workhorses in the Bard's canonical stable.
As such, a director might be forgiven for dialing it in. Dawn Monique Williams was having none of that on opening night. Playing to a packed house on a perfect spring evening at the Allen Elizabethan Theatre, Williams and her troupe of bawdy thespians set the evening on fire with a night of theater that deliciously walks the line between classic Shakespearean hilarity and an entirely contemporary brand of satire. It takes guts to integrate 1980s culture into a play that was written circa 1597, but that's what Williams has done, intermittently launching her actors into fabulously entertaining gyrations to the music of Whitesnake, Whitney Houston, and Blondie that somehow work ingenuously with the bawdy nature of the play. On production value alone, the costuming, lighting and musical composition are worth the price of admission — dance numbers by powerhouse choreographer Valerie Rachelle are superb. And we haven't even gotten to the acting.
In the iconic role of Sir John Falstaff, KT Vogt is a corpulent wrecking-ball, resplendent in elaborate costumes, complete with a misbehaving codpiece that appears variously at the most inopportune moments. Vogt's Falstaff is a rotund, high-octane rapscallion, a creature of insatiable appetites and unsavory motive. There is deep mastery behind Vogt's wonderfully crafted performance. Falstaff being among the meatiest characters in Shakespeare — interpreted so often, and by so many — there is always the danger of the character becoming a caricature. Vogt gives other actors a masterclass in how not to be boring. It's a riveting performance that would be at home on most any world stage, and very nearly steals the show. Fortunately, Vogt is surrounded by equal talent, so the balance is maintained.
As Sir Hugh Evans, Sara Bruner solidifies her reputation as the resident chameleon of the OSF company. Playing Evans as a sort of frazzled ditz of the 1980s secretarial pool variety, Bruner is superb, with burned out perm and librarian glasses, the underdog performer of the night. Elsewhere in the play, Jeremy Peter Johnson's Dr. Caius is a flamboyant Frenchman with a penchant for quick-fire ad-libs that will reward the more alert patrons in the audience ("depeche ... quickly! DEPECHE MODE!" had me in fits). As the titular wives of Windsor, Vilma Silva and Amy Newman are excellent as Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, respectively. Both gentlewomen adeptly and politely obliterate the lecherous maneuverings of Sir John, and in so doing brilliantly showcase the complex and subversive feminism by which such ladies were forced to survive under the conditions of their time. As Anne Page, Jamie Ann Romero is a sublime Reagan-era teenage dream. In the role of her beloved, William DeMeritt is suitably corny and adoring, smuggling mixed tapes to his inamorata as a love token and sporting a Walkman on his hip for the duration.
The rest of the cast is vigorously involved in a wonderful and creative production, and the audience responded appreciatively. I think it can be said without much contradiction that this particular opening night carried that rare and special blend of ingredients that make for theater magic; even in a 1,190 seat theater, the evening was warm and intimate, the play polished and wickedly entertaining. As such, the standing ovation — so often an annoying and unwarranted staple among American theatergoers — was well-deserved on this night. This is the seventh production I have seen at OSF this season, and I have yet to see a bad one. It would appear that the company has outdone itself again, even by its own high standards. "The Merry Wives of Windsor" is yet another gem. When are Mr. Rauch et Cie planning on making my job a little more difficult? Not anytime soon, it would seem.
The Merry Wives of Windsor plays through Oct. 13 in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre.
—Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
June 20: Story updated to correct spelling of Falstaff and Silva.