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The Merry Wives of Windsor

American Players Theatre, 2013

Dave Begel – OnMilwaukee

When talk turns to memorable characters in the canon of the works of William Shakespeare, perhaps none is so loved as Sir John Falstaff, the rollicking buffoon who makes major appearances in three plays. He appeared in both the Henry plays, IV and V, and was in fact killed off in the latter of the two.

But Shakespeare obviously understood the drawing power his oaf had and resurrected him as the central character for The Merry Wives of Windsor, a rollicking production opening over the weekend at American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

Falstaff is a fat, boastful, lustful and bullying (much like many cowards) character who spends his time sharing pints with his band of petty thieves and plotting how to get money and women – not necessarily in that order, but if possible, both from the same endeavor.

The objects of his affections here are the Mistresses Ford (Deborah Staples) and Page (Colleen Madden), wed respectively to Master Ford (David Daniel) and Master Page (James Ridge).

Daniel is suspicious of his wife’s faithfulness, and Ridge is a husband too distant and uninvolved in his marriage. Unto these breeches lumbers Falstaff, who sets his perpetually questing eyes on both the wives. Before too long, Falstaff comes to believe that both women have profound desires for him. He writes letters to each of them, proposing a liaison with him to twist their husbands into cuckolds. ... The two women soon discover, much to their horror, that identical letters had been sent to each.

What follows is the sort of complex plan for which Shakespeare’s comedies so often rely, complete with mixed identities, schemes gone awry and hilarity in abundance.

As Falstaff, Brian Mani delivers an outsized performance befitting such an outsized character. He fairly sizzles with his lustful and almost barbarous display of life, love and the pursuit of happiness.

Surrounding Mani is a quartet of magnificent professional actors, from Staples to Daniel to Ridge and Madden. The joyous moments of revenge planning by Staples and Madden, for instance, are full of delight and suspense.

Daniel once again proves he may well be the best physical comedic actor I’ve ever seen. Last season in "Much Ado About Nothing," his evasive action while hearing others plot about him brought down the house.

In Windsor, he searches for Falstaff, who he thinks is hiding in a laundry basket, only to discover that the knave is nowhere to be seen. His exasperation in the search and the clearly crazed reaction to the futility of the search must be seen to be fully appreciated. The laughter rocked the warm and beautiful night under the stars.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of the least performed plays in Shakespeare’s canon, and scholars normally don’t assign a great deal of substance to it.

It may well be short on substance, but under the direction of Tim Ocel, it is long on laughs. Which, after all, is mostly just what the bard wanted to get out of this one.

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