The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey’s 2015 season concluded last weekend with Shakespeare’s frolicsome romantic comedy romp “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” directed by Bonnie J Monte, who celebrated her 25th anniversary with the cherished institution. The corpulent, self-admiring Sir John Falstaff was made to suffer mercilessly and well-deservedly at the hands of quick-witted women who easily outsmarted him, foiling his overly ambitious seduction schemes. This theater masterpiece provides plenty of laughs as the would-be Adonis painfully discovers he’s merely a legend in his own mind.
David Andrew Macdonald fully embodied Falstaff in exaggerated swagger, oversize self-esteem, inflated ego and, of course, an overestimated sense of his seductive appeal and prowess. The delivery of Falstaff’s very first few lines sufficed to establish his personal conviction of being the most wondrous wooer of womankind; also his laziness and lack of creativity, making quite plausible the plot contrivance of his writing two identical letters to entice Mistress Alice Ford and Mistress Margaret “Meg” Page.
A stunning young Kristie Dale Sanders played the resourceful go-between Mistress Quickly, makeup and wigs aging her at least 40 years.
The titular wives were a coquettish Caralyn Kozlowski as Alice Ford and an exuberant Saluda Camp as Meg Page. Both women relished the over-the-top melodrama that their roles demand when carrying on their joint subterfuge, and both were equally good at bad acting—a skill requiring great talent if it is to be believable.
As the disparate husbands, Joey Collins, in an impressive debut, played the phlegmatic Mister George Page and Matt Sullivan, the insanely jealous, at times lunatic Master Ford.
Physicality abounded in this production, which sees Alice tumble into a large laundry basket, roll across stage to evade Falstaff’s groping pursuit, and roll off a chaise lounge in the nick of time to escape his headlong aerial dive. A couple fleeting fencing skirmishes and Master Ford’s temper tantrums in raging blind jealousy enliven matters sufficiently to keep even the most afflicted narcoleptic audience members fully awake and alert at all times.
Jon Barker brought his trademark panache to the role of Doctor Caius, speaking Elizabethan English with a heavy French accent, his eccentric wig, in fact, resembling pompously splayed plumage.
Raphael Nash Thompson’s unique resonance projected his gorgeous weighty voice with the utmost clearest diction to all corners of the auditorium as the Host of the Garter Inn.
Jonathan Finnegan debuted as the supremely silly Abraham Slender, the least suitable of the three suitors vying for the affections of Anne Page.
James Costello as Master Fenton—the underdog contender for the affections of the scarcely 17-year-old Anne, sweetly played by Rachel Felstein—gave a straightforward heroic portrayal. Though certainly not the same caliber romantic couple as Romeo and Juliet, Fenton and Anne nevertheless are pivotal characters. Both actors obviously have the chops for more substantial character development, and it is a shame their roles were reduced to ciphers, whether by script adaptation or perhaps Shakespeare’s own carelessness in not allotting them sufficient architectural opportunities.
The design concept could have been subtitled “The Color Purple.” No, not Barney purple, but, rather, various rich, elegant, dark shades of plum. Scenic designer Jonathan Wentz’s sets were framed by the suggestion of purple-tinged trees and bushes. Costume designer Yao Chen’s handsome outfits for the wealthy Fords and Pages abounded in shimmering satins of the regal shade, complimented with crimson and fuchsia bolero jackets for the women and skirts of golden brocade or black lace; she even deployed flocked velvet and magenta velour for men’s capes, tunics and waistcoats.
Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte was credited as this production’s director and sound designer. She masterfully coordinated the large cast, skillfully choreographing their fast-paced movements, entrances and exits. The troupe performed as one cohesive, organic whole, and the entire cast were standouts, with nary a dud in the lot. The ambient sounds and brief musical interludes were either authentic—of the period—or at least authentic-sounding, lending greater credibility to this unbelievable story, which came across more as hilarious history than a product of the Bard’s incredible imagination.
It somehow feels wrong to mention two quibbles: One might have wished for a less-refined Mistress Quickly and a messier, unattractive Falstaff of considerably greater girth. Admittedly it’s difficult to define Miss Quickly’s character, with a factotum to rival the Barber of Seville’s that includes housekeeper to the wealthy foreigner, Doctor Caius, requiring at least a modicum of sophistication. A Falstaff who’s less of a matinée idol and oblivious to his disproportionate proportions would point up more plainly the preposterousness of his presumption to pursue romantic exploits with beautiful, much younger women who outclass him.
Such slight superficial niggling aside, this was one truly excellent theatrical coup. It makes one wonder with anxious expectation what the coming season will hold, which should get underway in late-May 2016. If past performance is any indicator of future performance, audiences will experience few to nil disappointments and instead be increasingly surprised that the Company practically outdoes itself with every production it mounts.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
The F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre
36 Madison Ave
Madison NJ 07940
Box office: 973-408-5600