Legend has it Shakespeare wrote The Merry Wives of Windsor to honor a royal request. Elizabeth I apparently wanted to see Falstaff, the lecherous old fool from Henry IV, fall in love. If the legend were true -- and most likely it is not -- the queen would probably be disappointed to see what has become of lewd Falstaff. The sour mustached fop is a long way from the blubbery belly of debauchery who made Elizabethan nightlife look like so much fun in the history plays.
Cleaned up, trimmed down and standing center stage in the Houston Shakespeare Festival's peculiar version of Merry Wives, this new Falstaff, as played by Fritz Dickmann, is nothing more than an unpleasant, small-time grifter, a failed con man whom anyone would immediately recognize. After all, he's sporting a natty plaid suit, slicked-back hair and a curled-up Snidely Whiplash mustache. It doesn't help that director Rutherford Cravens (one of the city's most competent comedic actors) has time-warped the story into the 1930s and set the whole thing in the American South. All the characters poking around Kevin Rigdon's lacy wrought-iron set speak in long, liquid drawls, and the African-American servant has to bow and scrape to his tyrannical boss like some reject from a Shirley Temple flick. Then there is the odd and inconsistent matter of the biracial married couple whom nobody in this Deep South nightmare seems to think twice about. It's the Dixieland version of Shakespeare. Dollyland makes more sense.
Pasted onto this y'all-come-back-now setting is Shakespeare's tame farce that goes something like this: Falstaff, whose pockets are empty, means to remedy his unseemly money matters by making love to Alice Ford (Barbara Sims), for "she has all the rule of her husband's purse." While he's at it, he tries for Meg Page (Kate Revnell-Smith) as well; she too "bears the purse." To both women, Falstaff sends identical love letters, hoping to "thrive" in the ladies' generosity. They discover his plans, and being the "merry wives" they are, decide to trounce him at his own game, a plan that involves stuffing him into a pile of stinky laundry and dressing him up in a fat-woman costume.
Stitched into this silliness is a love story concerning Mistress Page's lovely daughter, Anne (Anne Bates). The girl will marry; the question is whom. Hopefully not Abraham Slender (played with hilarious camp by Foster Davis): All wormy white hands that flap about like chicken wings whenever he's upset, this Slender would be any virgin's worst nightmare. Another possible spouse is the hateful Dr. Caius, whom Robert Leeds makes into an amusing, barking, Napoleonic despot. Neither man will do. But never fear; Shakespeare wouldn't leave such a fair young maid with goons like Slender or Caius. Anne gets herself a proper husband, just as Falstaff gets his kick in the pants.
This tale holds no more weight than a bubble, and Falstaff is one of those drunks who just isn't any fun once he's been to the Betty Ford Clinic. Still, no one can deny the amusing puns and the wicked characters. Picking the royal legend back up: Queen Elizabeth was apparently delighted with her lightweight play. Of course, she didn't have to see it wilting under all that hot Southern air.
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