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SHAKESPEAREAN SHENANIGANS: Nell Gwynn as Mrs. Ford tricks Dennis McLaughlin's Falstsaff by playing on his lust and vanity in rehearsal for "The Merry Wives of (West) Windsor," Princeton Rep Company's updated Shakespeare at Pettoranello Amphitheatre through August 17.
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Princeton Rep Company Updates Shakespeare's Bawdy Comedy in Ingenious, Gag-Filled "The Merry Wives of (West) Windsor"

By Donald Gilpin

Some of William Shakespeare's greatest plays resist updating in production. When the modernized shtick and gimmickry on stage become more prominent than the beauty and power of the Bard's language or the richness, subtlety and sophistication of characterization and plotting, then critics and audiences should be concerned.

Fortunately, the above warning does not apply to The Merry Wives of (West) Windsor, Princeton Rep Company's updated rendition of Shakespeare's 1597 comedy, running through August 17 at the Pettoranello Amphitheatre under the stars – or the raindrops – off Route 206 north of Princeton.

According to legend, Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor in just fourteen days at the request of Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted to see the fat knight Falstaff (only a supporting character in the two parts of Henry IV) in love and in a play of his own. The hastiness of the writing is apparent.

This tale of clever women, jealous men and a lecherous, easily duped Falstaff has been a popular piece on stage over the past four hundred plus years, though frequently condemned by critics for its vulgarity (lots of sexual innuendo and subject matter with little nobility of sentiment or gentility to please the Victorians), its literary shortcomings (written almost entirely in prose, with only an occasional glimpse of the rich poetic language that distinguishes Shakespeare's greatest works) and the characterization of its protagonist, who pales in verbal skill, nimbleness of wit and personal charisma alongside the Falstaff of the Henry plays.

With nothing sacred here in language or characterization – even Shakespeare is entitled to an occasional lapse – The Merry Wives seems particularly ripe for transformations and updating, the most famous adaptation certainly being Verdi's triumphant opera Falstaff. But the challenges for producers of this play are formidable: 1) to make the updating coherent and credible – quite a leap from England in 1597 (or the early 1400's of Falstaff and his cohorts) to the West Windsor and Princeton of today; 2) to capitalize on the obvious theatrical effectiveness of these down-to-earth, middle-class characters and their domestic dilemmas; and 3) to communicate clearly the difficult Elizabethan language, a number of obscure references and the complex interweaving of plots and subplots.

Under the direction of Victoria Liberatori, with a couple of dynamic "merry wives," a strong supporting ensemble of resourceful New York actors and a creative, seasoned production team, the Princeton Rep Company succeeds in meeting most of those challenges and delivering a fun-filled, relentlessly inventive and entertaining evening.

Though it sticks with most of the original language, along with the premise that certain universal human attributes transcend time and place, the Princeton Rep Company aggressively and imaginatively updates all other aspects of the world of Shakespeare's comedy.

The play opens at the Princeton Junction train station with its newspaper vending machines. Falstaff's hangout at the Garter Inn becomes the Nassau Inn taproom with photos of famous Princeton grads (and Bill Clinton?) on the walls. An authentic-looking New Jersey Turnpike sign – "Exit 8A: Welcome to New Jersey" – a deer crossing sign, a Nassau Street sign and a no parking sign embellish the stage. A perfect, slightly reduced-in-size replica of a West Windsor row of townhouses, fully equipped with balcony and garage door (electronically controlled) on stage left completes Tim J. Amrhein's cleverly detailed and functional set design. The timely appearance of the Craft Cleaners' van and the cameo appearances of local dignitaries (West Windsor Mayor Shing-Fu Hsueh on the night I attended), along with a useful collection of props – a large bottle of Viagra for Falstaff, golf clubs, a jump rope – further assist in bringing this Merry Wives into our immediate environment.

Marie Miller's costume designs keep pace smartly with the modernizations, as the characters display a rich array of suburban-wear, including chic jogging outfits, the odd pair of plaid pants, natty sports shirts and considerable standard preppie attire from Marketfair? Nassau Street? Palmer Square? Falstaff, "a theatrical producer" in this production, has apparently found his more colorful shirts and other accoutrements in the large men's department of less traditional clothing establishments.

WHYY "Radio Times" voice-overs by renowned broadcaster Marty Moss-Coane, composed with excellent and timely humor by John Timpane and interspersed between scenes, lampoon such local controversial issues as the Princeton parking meter police, the deer management problem, the new library, the latest alien landing at Grover's Mill and the Princeton University Nude Olympics.

There are occasional jarring notes when the 16th century dialogue and its local references do not quite square with the 21st century characters and their situations here, but Princeton Rep has done extraordinarily consistent, thorough and creative work in making sure the transformations pervade the entire event.

This production, however, despite some brilliant individual performances and many hilarious moments, is less consistently successful in bringing across, clearly and comprehensibly, Shakespeare's entire tangled tale.

The main plot presents the futile efforts of Falstaff (Dennis McLaughlin) to seduce the merry wives, Mrs. Ford (Nell Gwynn) and Mrs. Page (Victoria Stilwell), and their resourcefulness in outwitting and punishing him. Mr. Page (Van Zeiler) and the jealous Mr. Ford (Donald Kimmel), not surprisingly, complicate matters; with Mr. Ford even donning a disguise to infiltrate Falstaff's domain and attempt to foil his plans.

The Pages' daughter Anne (Karen Freer) becomes the focal point of the main subplot, as she entertains three eccentric suitors, ranging widely in appeal and ardor: the dim-witted, squeaky-voiced, Chihuahua-carrying Slender (Christopher Franciosa), her father's choice; the irascible French Dr. Caius (Jeffrey Guyton), her mother's choice; and the clean-cut Princeton grad Master Fenton (Michael Sorvino), Anne's choice. (Guess who wins?)

Ms. Gwynn and Ms. Stilwell in the title roles handle the language with apparent ease and crystal clear diction, successfully communicating both the details of the lines and the essences of the characters of these indomitable, high-spirited ladies. Both the actresses and their characters are obviously enjoying the whole adventure, and their pleasure is infectious. As the harried husbands, Mr. Zeiler and Mr. Kimmel are capable counterparts, with Mr. Kimmel in particular displaying his range and his comical and expressive talents as he flies off in jealous rage or, in disguise, visits Falstaff and attempts to draw out the pompous lecher without himself losing control!

The tavern scenes, presided over by Mr. McLaughlin's Falstaff, with his coterie of Bardolph (Matthew Morgan), Pistol (Henning Hegland) and Nym (Chuck McMahon), are less effective and clear in delivering the play's meaning and humor. Part of the problem lies in the fact that this text simply does not provide as vibrant and witty a Falstaff as that of the Henry plays.

A bit more cutting would also be helpful in keeping the audience involved in the action. We could certainly do without the confusing sub-subplots of a comic duel between Dr. Caius and Sir Hugh the parson (humorously rendered by Dan Matisa) in the early stages and some German horse thieves in the final act. Carolyn Smith's Mistress Quickly, a confidante to all and a key go-between in various plot machinations, does provide memorable, vibrant characterization and convincing support throughout the play.

Lest anyone doubt that Princeton Rep Company is thorough on the detail work, right underneath the names of the designers and choreographers, the program credits a New York studio (a deer headdress modification studio?) with "Deer Headdress Modifications." Though The Merry Wives of Windsor – even The Merry Wives of (West) Windsor – does not display Shakespeare's literary genius at its peak, the Princeton Rep Company has staged a thoroughly engaging production, full of humor and creative surprises.

Princeton Rep Company's The Merry Wives of (West) Windsor will be playing through August 17 on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 8 p.m., and an August 9 show at Palmer Square at 2 p.m. Call 609-921-3682 or visit www.princetonrep.org.

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