Nobody puts Falstaff in a corner

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival makes merry

Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado

Now in its 57th season, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival is enjoying a wellearned renaissance. The 2014 CSF is full of interesting, high-quality offerings, chief of which is the uproarious The Merry Wives of Windsor. During the 12 years I have had the privilege of reviewing the festival, I can recall only a few other examples of productions this entertaining.

Atop the long list of excellent decisions made by first-time CSF director Seth Panitch is his choice of play. Though Shakespeare snobs sometimes relegate The Merry Wives of Windsor to second-class status, I would argue that it is one of the Bard’s better comedic efforts. Its broader reliance on prose rather than poetry and its refusal to veer into tragicomedy or outright tragedy as some of ol’ Will’s other comedies do gives it a wider appeal and a more consistent comic tone, making it an extremely accessible piece.

Short on funds, Sir John Falstaff, here minus the “Sir” and dubiously employed as a circuit comedian, decides to woo a rich man’s wife as a means to getting at her husband’s cash. His intended victim, Mrs. Ford, and her friend, Mrs. Page, however, quickly turn the tables on him, putting Falstaff into some amusingly compromising positions. Meanwhile, Mrs. Page’s daughter, Anne (Kyra Lindsey), is being courted by no less than three suitors, one, championed by her father, one by her mother and the last by Anne’s own heart. The two storylines interweave and, masterfully, share a mutual resolution.

As is often the case at the CSF, the play is set in a non-traditional time and place, so instead of Windsor, England some hundreds of years ago we find our selves at a resort in the Catskill Mountains of New York circa 1962. I’d be willing to bet that Panitch is a little Swayze crazy — or at least a big fan of Dirty Dancing — because, beginning with the setting and extending well beyond it, his production feels not only inspired by the iconic 1987 film but also like a loving homage to it. (Note to the CSF: If we could get a similar Roadhouse/Hamlet mashup next season I think ticket sales would go through the roof.)

As much as the set itself, which is effective if a bit mundane, and the costuming, which is full to the brim with wonderful period-appropriate attire, the steady flow of cultural references anchors The Merry Wives of Windsor in its time. Is one character seemingly channeling Elvis? Check. Does another need to hold down the front of her dress as she stands over an updraft a la Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch? No doubt. Are there shouts out to Sinatra and Martin? But of course. And does a supporting character offhandedly threaten to send another “to the moon” Ralph Kramden-style? Indubitably.

Along with all the deft 1960s allusions, Panitch peppers the play with popular tunes from the time. Among others, Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” the Contours’ “Do You Love Me” and the Four Seasons’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry” waft across the beautiful Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre. And the moment when Falstaff makes an entrance to Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” will forever be a CSF highlight.

Falstaff is considered the main attraction of The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Michael Winters’ portrayal is spot on: a heady mix of self-assured braggadocio and, especially later in the play, knowing vulnerability. As Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, Vanessa Morosco and Mare Trevethan match him line for line and savor each humiliation they visit upon poor Falstaff.

Shifting back and forth between Mrs. Ford’s jealous, uptight husband and a cool, beret-wearing beatnik, sometimes within the same scene, Peter Simon Hilton shows tremendous range and character awareness. As great a job as the cast does, they are all outshined by Geoffrey Kent in a deliriously absurd turn as Doctor Caius, one of Anne’s suitors. Kent’s Caius echoes so loudly Peter Sellers’ work as Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther films that I wouldn’t have been surprised to have heard a few bars of Mancini’s famous theme song pop up during his scenes. Kent wrings every ounce of comedy from every line and gesture, and he does it without seeming to break a sweat.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is the Colorado Shakespeare Festival at its very best.