First the good news: The Merry Wives of Windsor at North Coast Repertory Theatre is skillfully comic. With David Hamilton's fluid direction, an accomplished cast excels at comic invention, and the evening features at least a few moments of comic brilliance.
Old Falstaff, one of Shakespeare's most beloved characters from the "Henry" plays, writes love letters to two wealthy wives, who trick him three times. There's a suspicious husband and other comic and slightly romantic subplots. Nearly everyone in this large cast shines, particularly J.M. Wilkerson as Falstaff. Janet Waddell as the horny housekeeper is especially memorable, as is Jim Buschmann as the French physician by way of Inspector Clouseau.
Pat Hamilton's costumes are pleasing, and scenic designer Tony Leitch's set helps make the action believable, even as locations change.
The only problem -- and it's unlikely to be a problem for everyone -- is that it's one of Shakespeare's weakest and least characteristic plays. When poet W.H. Auden lectured on all the Shakespeare plays at the New School in New York, he devoted just four sentences to this one, calling it "very dull indeed," and spent the rest of the class playing a recording of Verdi's opera based on it. Critic Harold Bloom denies that this is even the same character as in the Henry plays; he calls this version "False Falstaff." Even the legend that Shakespeare wrote this play at the special request of Queen Elizabeth is questionable, although it may have been a good excuse.
That it is mostly prose is said to make it more understandable to modern audiences, but the words are actually less comprehensible than in many more "poetic" plays, with lots of topical allusions and jokes that you had to be there to get. (Shakespeare was apparently settling scores with people that this play's first audience might know.) The actors speed you through this pretty well, so mostly what remains of the language is pretty dull: Apart from puns there's little verbal wit, and even less depth.
So what can a production do? Some have underlined the class differences in the characters, or emphasized Falstaff as a man out of his time as well as past his prime. Or you might do as Hamilton did: assemble an impressive cast, give them plenty of individualized comic business and turn them loose. He does avoid the cruelty possible in some of the "make fun of the fat guy" bits. Basically this is an Elizabethan sitcom, with some burlesque house emphasis on double entendres and even odd remnants of ethnic humor.
There were some problems opening night: A few uncertain and inconsistent accents, a few comic bits repeated a few too many times, and a few fine voices too indistinct. At two and a half hours, it's also pretty long for an episode of "I Love Falstaff." But if you accept that the usual depth and levels of Shakespeare are largely missing, and that it's all pretty predictable, you are likely to enjoy this production for its admirable comic dexterity. And for the laughs: Even if it's mostly sketch humor, a lot of it still works.
The best moments were full of subtle actions and reactions between two characters, and those were real treats. There could be even more of them by the time you see it.
A sidelight: JM Wilkerson as Falstaff has several seduction scenes with Rae Robison as Mistress Ford. In what even actors occasionally call real life, they are married. Over in Arcata at the same time on opening weekend, their daughter, Meghan Hughes, was performing in The Fire-Bringer at HSU.
Another sidelight: When Judy GeBauer, playwright of The Fire-Bringer, was in Arcata from Denver last week, she stayed with HSU Theatre, Film & Dance chair Bernadette Cheyne and her husband, scenic designer Ivan Hess. Eventually GeBauer and Hess realized they'd both grown up in Oakland at around the same time, let's say more than a few years ago. Then that they had gone to the same high school, with the same drama teacher. Then that they were there at the same time. Finally, when Ivan found his high school yearbook, there they were: literally on the same page.
Coming Up: Here's an unusual opportunity for local theatergoers. For over a decade, the Ghost Road Company of Los Angeles has been working on their modern adaptation of The Oresteia, the trilogy of tragedies by Aeschylus, which they are calling Home Siege Home. Before it premieres at the Getty Museum next spring, the company is performing one of the plays, Elektra, at the Arcata Playhouse this weekend: Thursday through Saturday (Sept. 25-27) at 8 p.m. More information at www.arcataplayhouse.com.