Elizabethan Sitcom

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

I am about to say something for which I expect to be pilloried: Not all of Shakespeare’s plays are great. There, I said it.

Take The Merry Wives of Windsor playing this week at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.

This isn’t the Shakespeare of deep human insight or political intrigue or stunning word play. This is the Shakespeare with a subplot which revolves around making fun of how tough it is to understand the French and Welsh. It’s broad brush comedy - no pun intended. It’s great; but it’s not GREAT.

Really, it’s the ancestor of the modern sitcom.

And like so many modern sitcom’s, Merry Wives is a spin-off of the successful character of another "property," as we say in LA. In this case, it’s the wonderful Falstaff -- the standout hit from Henry the Fourth. Like many a savvy writer, Shakespeare built The Merry Wives around a known commodity. Or maybe it was his decision at all. One dubious theory has it that the first Queen Elizabeth was so enamored of Falstaff that she commissioned Shakespeare to write a love story with him at the center. So, ever pragmatic, Shakespeare transplants the fat, vain, knight from the company of nobility in 1400 and plops him down in the equivalent of a middle class suburb in 1600.

Falstaff, having fallen on hard financial times, conjures a plan to seduce two wealthy married ladies -- Mistress Ford and Mistress Page -- and through bedding them gain access to their husband’s purses. But the ladies -- a slightly more savvy Elizabethan version of Lucy and Ethel -- stymie Falstaff’s plan. By the way, I didn’t come up with that TV reference; the poster for a production by LA’s Shakespeare Festival a few season’s ago described them exactly that way. Anyway, rather than cuckolding, Falstaff becomes the center of an elaborate slapstick-worthy misdirection that at one point has him dumped in the Thames with a load of wash.

This Merry Wives of Windsor is a London import from Shakespeare’s Globe Theater. Lucky Angeleno’s will remember the Globe Theater’s 2003 production of Twelfth Night as part of UCLA’s now defunct International Theater Festival. Those hoping to relive that meticulously wrought production will be disappointed. This current Globe production embraces the loose comedy and focuses on big characterizations and sight gags. And for this play -- it works wonderfully.

The joy of this production is the Merry Wives themselves -- Mistress Page and Mistress Ford -- played with a girlish charm by Serena Evans and Sarah Woodward. The production is at its best when these two are scheming Falstaff’s downfall. Their joy, both as actors and characters, is a pleasure to watch.

So if you’re hoping to see SHAKESPEARE, and all that implies, you will leave the theater hungry. If, on the other hand, you are willing to take Merry Wives on its own comedic terms, then it’s a fun night of bawdy humor.

The Merry Wives of Windsor plays at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica through Sunday.

For info on the play text the word “curtain” to 69866.

Comedies or tragedies -- what’s your Shakespearean pleasure? Join the conversation at KCRW.com/theater.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA theater for KCRW.

London’s Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre production of The Merry Wives of Windsor runs now through Sunday, October 24. The Broad Stage is located at 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90401. Parking is FREE. Tickets start at $47 and are available online by phone at 310-434-3200.


Banner image: Serena Evans, Christopher Benjamin and Sarah Woodward in The Merry Wives of Windsor