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The Merry Wives of Windsor

American Players Theatre, 2015

Mike Fischer – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

So yes: Brian Mani is wonderfully funny as Falstaff in American Players Theatre’s smartly conceived The Merry Wives of Windsor, in which this impossibly fat old knight somehow fancies himself a ladies’ man.

But while Mani had Saturday’s opening night audience in stitches en route to Falstaff’s belated admission that he’s been “made an ass,” Merry Wives is no more entirely his play than A Midsummer Night’s Dream belongs solely to Bottom — another loud, self-involved man who will eventually discover how much he resembles a donkey.

In his third straight APT salvage operation involving a particularly maligned Shakespeare comedy, director Tim Ocel honors this one’s title, focusing on the marriages of the two women who will engineer Falstaff’s downfall. What results is a fresh and persuasive Merry Wives that makes a fitting introduction to the new APT season, filled with plays taking a hard look at marriage.

Ocel makes clear that this play’s wives aren’t always as merry — or simple — as they’re often portrayed.

Alice Ford is as beleaguered as ever by husband Frank’s unfounded jealousy that she’s cavorting with Falstaff. But as presented by Deborah Staples and David Daniel, there’s still plenty of smoldering embers in the Fords’ fiery relationship.

Even as Daniel conveys Frank’s insecurities, he never lets us lose sight of this man’s abiding love for his wife; Staples’ Alice is so wounded by his frightening rages because she loves him right back. While played in a lighter key, the Fords’ reconciliation calls to mind The Winter’s Tale, in which Daniel gave a memorable 2009 performance at APT as the jealous Leontes — and in which Staples was moving in APT’s 2000 production as Leontes’ unjustly accused wife.

The Fords’ makeup scene disgusts George Page, whose marriage to Margaret is usually presented as more steady and solid. Not so here, where James Ridge and Colleen Madden give brilliant, eye-opening line readings — accompanied by blocking that frequently keeps them apart — suggesting a long-term marriage that’s hardened into habit and joyless routine.

For all their bluff good cheer, the Pages are filled with resentment, short on love and pulling in different directions — typified by each trying to marry their daughter to different, equally mismatched suitors (delightfully played by Robert R. Doyle as the foppish Slender and Jonathan Smoots as the dandified French doctor).

Such duplicity courses through this Windsor, which is a bit like the Pages’ marriage and every small town: It appears more idyllic than it is.

All the same, Merry Wives is also still very much a comedy, in which love and good fellowship — helped along by this production’s dog, troupe of children, festive bunting and colorful, late Victorian clothing — ultimately conquers all.

That message gets reinforced here by Nate Burger’s Fenton, passionately declaring his love for Anne Page; through Tim Gittings’ emotional Welsh parson, rising above the hatred threatening to engulf him; and through Sarah Day’s decent, fundamentally goodhearted Mistress Quickley.

Windsor’s ultimate harmony, here, is all the more rewarding because Ocel has raised the stakes. By unveiling the darkness on the edge of town and within our relationships, he reminds us that with Merry Wives as well as our loves and lives, we don’t always know what awaits — which is why we should never take how they’ll play for granted.

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