Ah, merry indeed are the wives of Windsor in the Actors’ Repertory Theatre Ensemble’s production of the Shakespearean goof-fest now playing at the Castle Theatre. Merry also are the husbands, the suitors, the fat knights and the oddball supporting characters who work as an ensemble to make “Merry Wives of Windsor” a delightful treat to watch.
The main plot surrounds Sir John Falstaff (Ward L. Wright), the not-terribly-fat “fat knight” who mistakenly believes two married women have the hots for him. Being a debtor as well as a lecher, he seeks to woo these women and make off with their husbands’ money.
When the shrewd women — Mistress Page (Lynne D. Bronson) and Mistress Ford (Emmelyn Thayer) — learn of Falstaff’s plans, they plot to lead him on and then humiliate him in retaliation for his attempted misdeeds. This culminates in a forest scene — marvelous in the Castle’s outdoor setting; this is the first time all night that you notice the sound of the crickets in the surrounding trees — in which people dress as fairies and pinch Falstaff. (It makes sense in the play, sort of.)
Somewhere on the side is a plot involving Page’s beautiful, non-descript daughter Anne (Amy Ashworth), who is in love with the handsome, non-descript Fenton (Shayne N. Bayles). Anne’s mother wants her to marry the hot-tempered but wealthy Dr. Caius (Cristian Bell); her father (Benji Smith) wants her to go with flamboyant moron Abraham Slender (Matt Biedel) for reasons only he could explain.
Director Christopher Clark has obviously worked hard at getting his actors to come through with truly memorable, distinct characters. With only a few exceptions — and those primarily because Shakespeare didn’t give them much to do — everyone makes an impact, regardless of how little or how much stage time they have. Cristian Bell earns the most laughs as Dr. Caius, who shouts everything in an outrageous French accent; Loraine Edwards is an unceasing pepper-pot as Mistress Quickly, who acts as everyone’s go-between and gossip-carrier; even minor character Pistol (Joshua Bingham) lingers in one’s memory due to the rather arbitrary decision to make the character blind, leading to not a few stumblings and badly aimed utterances.
The atmosphere of the play is giddy, like a bunch of high school kids got together and did a show, giving it their all and being absolutely delighted just to be on stage — except that these “kids” are grownups with a ton of experience and great comic ability.
To me, what best exemplifies the show is a moment with Sir Hugh Evans (Joel R. Wallin), a minor character who I can’t even remember existing in the Shakespearean Festival version of the play I saw two months ago. While waiting to duel with Dr. Caius, Evans speaks a soliloquy and then suddenly rips off his shirt, revealing a torso shaped by non-exercise and Doritos, and displaying for all the world to see his pale, floppy bosoms. Here is Wallin being completely dedicated to the part, willing to do whatever it takes to get laughs — yet not seeming desperate for them. Here is an actor willing to strip himself of all dignity (and, I suspect, of all clothing) for the sake of making the character as real and memorable as can be.
The cast in general acts this way, whole-heartedly doing whatever it is they do without a trace of self-consciousness. The result? A funny, fast-paced comedy in which Falstaff comes across as the most normal person of the bunch.
I have nothing to add at this time, except that I regret not having more space to mention more actors by name, because nearly everyone was great.