There are plenty of folks who wouldn't want to touch the often complicated language of Shakespeare with a 10-meter pole. But now and then, a production of one of his works displays so much spirited action and so many irrepressible sight gags that the words cease to be an obstacle. The Ohio Shakespeare Festival staging of A Midsummer Night's Dream was one recent example, and The Merry Wives of Windsor, now playing at the Great Lakes Theater Festival, is another. Indeed, there are so many pratfalls, slap-and-tickles, and chases up the aisles that one might mistake this classic comedy for an out-of-control sitcom.
Aiding that perception is director Sari Ketter's concept of setting all the action at the Garter Resort, which looks like a 1950s-era Howard Johnson's restaurant. The image is on target, right down to the orange-and-turquoise color scheme and period pop music ("Fever," "Come Go With Me").
As for plot, Wives is pretty straightforward: Corpulent and bawdy Sir John Falstaff is hot for two spouses of Windsor gentlemen, Mistresses Ford and Page. Meanwhile, the Pages are trying to marry off their beauteous daughter, Anne, to a dolt, Abraham Slender, even as she is lusted after by Germanic Doctor Caius and her true love, Master Fenton (played with an Elvis pout by Nick Koesters). They are all assisted by Mistress Quickly, Dr. Caius' housekeeper, who double-dips as a freelance marriage broker. These and other threads get tangled up with sexual intrigues and mistaken identities, until everything ends in happy exhaustion.
The cast of 30 is uniformly sensational, each performer catching director Ketter's frolicsome approach and making it his own. Paul Kiernan is a riot as Falstaff, decked out in a flowered shorts set, mincing about like an animated pachyderm from a Disney flick. Master Ford is played with knee-buckling, barely restrained passion by Andrew May, enraged at the thought of being cuckolded and dashing around to catch the perp in action. Kathryn Cherasaro and Lynn Allison are deliciously devious as the prankish wives Ford and Page, respectively. And Jeff Cribbs turns Slender into an impenetrably dense doofus, a man whose malaprops are exceeded only by his physical ungainliness.
In smaller but telling roles, David Hansen and Wayne Turney score comedically as Falstaff's sidemen, Hansen in punk-rocker mode with bleached hair and Turney as geezer-jazz guy. Nina Domingue, sporting a red wig and a Long Island accent, is a gum-chewing stitch as romantic entrepreneur Quickly. The language is further butchered by Marc Moritz, who, as Dr. Caius, mangles words with Inspector Clouseau-like verve.
Purists may find this lively interpretation off-putting, as its layered and often gratuitous gags do stretch the play to the breaking point. Even the brisk set changes are funny. But from Russell Metheny's eye-candy set to B. Modern's cacophonous costumes, this Wives is as fresh and buzzy as a Key lime martini on a hot summer day.