Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Evening and Saturday Afternoon in Windsor Terrace: Brave New World Repertory's "The Merry Wives of WIndsor (Terrace)" at Our Lady's Field

We took the G train to Windsor Terrace early Friday evening to see the always-excellent Brave New World Repertory's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor (Terrace), brilliantly transporting Shakespeare's only comedy set in England to a very funny contemporary sitcom version of Brooklyn.

Unfortunately, a violent thunderstorm and downpour near the end of Act III halted the performance -- even Borough President Marty Markowitz in the audience couldn't control the weather -- so we returned in the heat of Saturday afternoon for the satisfying and wacky conclusion to this sharp production directed by John Morgan.

That we so enjoyed this production is a tribute to Brave New World Repertory, because it's definitely not one of our Shakespeare favorites. Reportedly written in just two weeks at the behest of Queen Elizabeth, who couldn't get enough of the Falstaff of Henry IV, it's got a dashed-off, kitchen-sink text that at least for us made it deadly on the page.

Onstage, however, a clever staging and a talented cast can pull off laughs if they do it right. Although there was more poetry in one scene in the Brave New World staged reading of As You Like It we saw at Prospect Park last summer than there is in the entire script of Merry Wives (literally: it's the Shakespeare play with the highest prose-to-poetry ratio), this ensemble plays it like the sitcom it was meant to be (and it's a spinoff of a sitcom, really, The Jeffersons rather than All in the Family).

Actually, this production is part The Real Housewives of Brooklyn and part the 50s sitcom of The Honeymooners, Sgt. Bilko or I Love Lucy, with the plots and subplots involving someone on the make trying to pull off a deceptive scheme, various counterplots of revenge and disguise, with the hapless antihero -- here, the track-suited, chain-wearing goombah Sir John Falstaff (Stuart Zagnit, with gusto to spare, matching his huge spare tire) -- getting his comeuppance through a series of comic humiliations just one beat ahead of making you pity him. Zagnit makes Falstaff lovable because under his bluster, he seems vulnerable, maybe even wounded in his take-charge buffoonishness.

The whole cast did a yeoman job, and it was nice to see again some of the actors from last year's As You Like It. As the two housewives who enact their revenge on this clown, Claire Beckman as Mrs. Ford (with her needlessly jealous hubby -- Kevin Hogan, whose own schemed are disarmingly dense and charming) and Christine Siracusa as Mrs. Page, are entertaining -- say, like Snooki will be in twenty years.

This play has an enormous cast of characters -- Shakespeare felt that one comic foreigner wasn't enough, apparently, so he has both a French doctor

and a Welsh priest (although Michael Kirby and Peter Zazzali play them with insouciance more as the stock vaudeville German and Irishman) -- and by the last part of the play, which we saw Saturday, an audience member's temptation is to stop trying so hard to follow everybody.

The Brooklyn accents and types on display here -- the toss-the-ball-around civil servants, the dim rich kid (Matthew Luceno, who made us laugh),

the pompous judge (William Brenner, so good in dual roles in As You Like It),

the girl everyone (and we mean almost everyone) seems to want (Catherine Mancuso makes Anne Page endearingly obnoxious), the well-meaning lowlifes and lots of others: well, when you mix everything in a blender, sometimes you get a delicious smoothie,

especially when the cast used the space of Our Lady's Field so efficiently that the movements were -- except for the thunderstorm, of course -- fairly seamless. It ain't subtle -- there's more shtick than you can shake a stickball bat with -- but it's all in service to the convoluted story rather than show-offy.

Caroline Ryburn is particularly good as a high-energy, ditzy Mistress Quickly, and the whole farcical melange worked for us in The Merry Wives of Windsor (Terrace).

Harold Bloom said that this comedy was the only play of Shakespeare's that the Bard himself seemed to hold in contempt. We think Will would have liked this production, and we're grateful to the Brave New World Repertory Theater and the Holy Name Parish (Father Jim Cunningham) for bringing it to the community.

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