“The Merry Wives of Windsor”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier
When: through Jan. 19
Tickets: $48-$78
Phone: 312-595-5600

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I’ve never really been able to warm up to “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Legend has it that Shakespeare wrote the play to satisfy Queen Elizabeth I’s desire to see more of Sir John Falstaff — specifically, to see him in love — and it has always seemed to me like a hodgepodge of conventional comic tropes fleshed out with a lot of silly antics. The cross-section of bourgeois Elizabethan society (as opposed to royals and the aristocracy) is amusing but wears thin after awhile, and although watching women get the upper hand is always appealing, the theme is hammered home very hard.

That being said, Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s current production of “Merry Wives,” its third, is lots of fun. Director Barbara Gaines cannily sets the romp in post-World War II Windsor and infuses it with period songs that not only are entertaining but also provide a counterpoint that deepens the action. In keeping with our own weather, she’s chosen winter as the season, and James Noone’s snow-capped scenic design has the festive feel of a storybook Victorian Christmas rather than resembling any reality, past or present. Naturally, Susan E. Mickey has a ball with the costumes.

While the centerpiece of the evening is the way Mistress Page (Kelli Fox) and Mistress Ford (Heidi Kettenring) trick the lustful and greedy Falstaff (Scott Jaeck), we’re introduced to a town’s worth of characters and intrigues first. Chief among them is the courtship of Anne Page (Tiffany Yvonne Fox) by several men: the tongue-tied yet dithering Slender (Steven Sutcliffe), cousin of Justice Shallow (James Harms); the French Dr. Caius (Greg Vinkler), and Fenton (Matt Mueller), here made an American “flyboy.”

Anne favors Fenton to whom both her parents strongly object. Mistress Quickly (Angela Ingersoll) volunteers to promote the suits of all of them for remuneration, even though she works for Dr. Caius, who’s a veterinarian. That may be the excuse for Cricket, Lego and Gunther, three dogs that steal the show whenever they’re on stage, which is often. Mocking foreign accents is a favorite local pastime, and Dr. Caius comes in for considerable abuse — Vinkler fractures French with aplomb — as does Welsh clergyman Sir Hugh Evans (William Dick), though he doesn’t sound authentically Welsh to my untrained ear.

As for Falstaff, he’s returned from the war in need of female company and funds, so he sends letters suggesting assignations to Mistresses Ford and Page despite, or perhaps because of, their marital status. Portrayed like loving sisters by Fox and Kettenring, they plan to give the fat man his comeuppance by arranging a meeting that will be interrupted, sending him off to his punishment in a dirty laundry-filled basket. Delighted by their success, they repeat the ploy with a variation — Falstaff has to dress up like an old woman to escape — and then conceive the ultimate ruse, a forest meeting replete with folklore and fairies, not to mention echoes of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The Anne Page plot also wraps up in this finale.

But not content to portray young people outwitting parents and Falstaff being foiled, Shakespeare throws in the machinations and misery of a jealous husband. The wives don’t let their husbands in on their plans for Falstaff, and while Master Page (Kevin Gudahl) trusts his mate completely, Master Ford (Ross Lehman) does not. Consumed by jealousy and mistrust of his wife, he flies into rages and repeatedly makes a fool of himself. Though Mistress Ford clearly loves him — one of the songs demonstrates this more than the script — she’s also glad he learns the error of his ways, however painfully.

With so much going on and an ensemble that includes Falstaff’s followers, an innkeeper and a bunch of servants, it’s not surprising that “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has highs and lows. Jaeck’s Falstaff isn’t larger than life like he should be, but the chase scene that sends him down a narrow hole and out through another is one of the funniest of the night. Sutcliffe’s Slender is hilarious, an achievement given that the character can be very irritating. And Michael Semanic, who plays Falstaff’s page, Robin, and has the voice of an angel, is a young actor to watch. The finale in the forest is effectively staged, with the help of John Culbert’s lighting and Harrison McEldowney’s choreography, and musical director/vocal arranger Doug Peck does a fine job throughout.

Then there are the pups — particularly cute-as-a-button Cricket with his big nose and super-friendly way. Indeed, I was very surprised they didn’t get to take bows (or bow-wows) at the end.