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'Tis the Season to be Falstaff

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

'Tis the season to be Falstaff. Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff is arguably the most beloved character in Western literature. The &quotfat; kidneyed rascal" has inspired songs, movies, operas, and even alcoholic beverages.

Last month, Los Angeles Opera presented Verdi's operatic interpretation of Falstaff, featuring the actor/singer who most concede is world's greatest living interpreter of the role: Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel.

Terfel's voice is wonderful, but it's his acting that really makes &quotold; Sweet Jack and Sugar" come alive on stage. Terfel understands that Falstaff is not just a clown, or fool, but rather that Falstaff is an old man unwilling to accept change in life and in the world around him. He doesn't ignore the comic elements of the role--his leap into a dirty laundry basket inspired joyous laughter from the audience--but a tragic dignity burns through the jokes and the music, which is why seeing Terfel's Falstaff is truly a life enhancing experience.

This summer's main Falstaff event is taking place in London, as the Royal National Theatre is staging all six hours of Shakespeare's King Henry IV, Parts I and (Part) II. Playing the role of Sweet Jack is the acclaimed British actor Michael Gambon. Gambon's Falstaff is decidedly less noble than Terfel's--he and Price Hal (the future King Henry V) make their entrance in Part I, like football lads after a match, urinating against a tree.

Gambon's Falstaff is huge and grotesque--and looks like he's going to croak at any moment. This &quotdeath;'s door" approach is interesting, especially in the &quotbetter; part of valor is discretion" monologue, but it also feels like an affectation. Mostly this is due to Gambon's speech, which is usually slurred--often to the point of inaudibility. This is not without merit. It's a good drunk act...and it's also true that after all the ale Falstaff has consumed, his speech probably would sound a bit groggy. But ultimately, Gambon's layers of shabbiness take us away from the soul of the character. There are some great moments, but it isn't quite a Falstaff for the history books.

I didn't see Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the opening night of this production, but legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I did attend the opening performances of Henry IV, Parts I and II back in the late 1590's, and so taken with the work was the Queen that she commanded Shakespeare to write a play with Falstaff as the central character.

That play would become The Merry Wives of Windsor, which is being performed all over the South Bay area this summer , courtesy of Shakespeare by the Sea. This outdoor Merry Wives is a modest, mostly amateur production, but it showcases a Falstaff that is very different than Gambon's boozy Knight. Jeffrey Markle, a local musician, plays Falstaff in a decidedly straightforward, almost upright manner.

Markle employs no prosthetic gut, no drunken gait, instead his just uses his rich voice to read the lines clearly and with emotion--as if performing the part for a book on tape. The result: his Falstaff inspires just as much laughter as his counterpoint across the Atlantic. Shakespeare's Falstaff is a role so well-written that comic lines sound just as funny on the San Pedro cliffs as they do on the biggest stage in London.

Some of the other actors in this production speak with a southern twang and banjo music is used for scene changes, which takes this Merry Wives out of British suburbia and place in the rural south. It's not a bad idea, but it isn't consistent--as the costumes are all decidedly Elizabethan. But what's best about this production is Markle's clean and well-articulated Falstaff, and of course, the fact that it's free...which is a price that Sir John Falstaff himself would no doubt approve.

The Merry Wives of Windsor continues at outdoor venues around the South Bay through August 13. Henry IV, Parts I & II run at the Royal National Theatre in London until August 31. A BBC broadcast of Bryn Terfel's Falstaff can be seen on DVD.

This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW.

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