Play Review: Silliness of First Folio Theatre’s ‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ needs a bit of heart

"The Merry Wives of Windsor"

First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., off Route 83, Oak Brook

Through Aug. 10

Tickets: $26-$37

(630) 986-8067; firstfolio.org

Why trust the text when you can flog it to death with a 100-pound ham? Such was the rhetorical question bouncing through my head in reaction to the overboiled schtickfest that director Nick Sandys has created in First Folio Theatre’s staging of William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

Sandys has dumbed down “Merry Wives” to a common denominator so low it makes the Medea flicks look like Stoppard and taken it so far over the top that it is void of almost anything resembling authentic human emotion. There are occasional moments of relief within this shrill, slapsticky swamp, but they’re few.

To be sure, the play itself doesn’t approach the epic profundity of, say, “King Lear” or the glimmering romance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Some scholars speculate that Shakespeare wrote “Merry Wives” on command to satisfy audience demand for an entire show starring Sir John Falstaff. The jolly/felonious misadventures that propel Falstaff through “Henry IV Parts I and 2” left Elizabethans hungry for more tales of the fat knight whose guts are made of pudding.

The larger-than-life excesses of the rotund “epicurean rascal” are front and center in “Merry Wives,” as the lecherous, greedy, and paradoxically lovable Sir John gets his comeuppance at the hands of the titular spouses.

Having devised a chuckleheaded scheme to fatten his purse by seducing the married, middle-class Mistresses Page and Ford, Falstaff embarks on an ill-fated courtship that sees both women teaching him a thing or three about excess, entitlement, lechery, greed and the perils of treating women like playthings. There is comic gold in the text, as the ladies prank the Sir John in a variety of creative ways. He’s literally burned and left all wet for his efforts, as the ladies put him through trails by fire, water and in one potentially hilarious scene, an industrial-sized hamper packed with stinky, snot-crusted laundry.

At the center of “Merry Wives” is Brian McCartney as Sir John. Curiously, he’s among the most restrained characters in the large cast. McCartney is amiably egotistical and clueless as the jelly-bellied knight, but there’s an emptiness to his portliness; McCartney’s Falstaff is primarily girth with little depth. Granted, the character doesn’t come with a particularly thoughtful interior or nuanced disposition. But he shouldn’t be forgettable either. Even the most superficial characters need a core that elicits empathy, and that’s missing.

Mistresses Ford (Lydia Berger Gray) and Page (Patrise Egleston) fare slightly better. Egleston is adequately clever as Page. Berger sparks with high spirits as Gray. The third woman helping to pull the strings in the comedy is the smart, saucy Mistress Quickly (Caroline Kingsley) whose name is indicative of her quick wit and who anchors a subplot involving three suitors vying for the hand of Mistress Page’s winsome young daughter Anne (Meg Warner).

Kingsley is terrific as a vixen with brains to match her trussed up décolletage (Elise Hiltner’s costume design is quite good) while Warner nicely captures the intense emotionality of a young woman in love.

The supporting men, however, are mostly one-dimensional buffoons. As one of Mistress Anne’s suitors, Michael Mulhearn continually fusses and poses with all manner of stereotypically effeminate affectations, relentlessly pulling focus and intermittently interjecting his dialogue with prolonged, upper registers shrieks.

The decision to model another of Anne’s suitors, one Dr. Caius (Christian Gray), on Inspector Clouseau is a good one. But the good doctor would be a whole lot funnier if he dialed down his prancing mannerisms.

Joe Foust, who is firmly established in the Chicago-area theatrosphere as a bulwark of glorious outrageousness, would also serve the comedy better by reining it in a bit. Broadly speaking, a little Foust goes a long way: He’s got an inherently outsized stage presence and an inarguable gift for embodying extremes. But as Master Ford, he overdoes the apoplexy to the point that you start to worry that his head might spontaneously combust.

The rest of the male ensemble clatters and crashes through their marks, creating an atmosphere that’s more Dumb and Dumber than middle-class, Elizabethan England.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” is a comedy that celebrates base humor and practical jokes. Nobody goes in expecting a mountain of profundity. But when humanity is eclipsed by the sheer silliness, the show falls apart.

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"The Merry Wives of Windsor"

First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., off Route 83, Oak Brook

Through Aug. 10

Tickets: $26-$37

(630) 986-8067; firstfolio.org

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