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Merry Wives lacks some merriment

Sir John Falstaff (Jeff Cooper) gets no respect. His men will not do his bidding; he lost his horse; his leather gauntlets shriveled after he was tossed into the Thames; he smells like greasy laundry; and a bunch of fairies just scared the wits out of him. The last thing he wants is another romantic go at the two wives who already rejected him. But Falstaff, being the Lothario in his mind only, gamely tries to woo the Mistresses Page and Ford again to unlucky consequences. He is shamed and just wants to go home. Shakespeare decided that poor Falstaff deserves a good meal and all ends well with hearty handshakes and heartier appetites.

However, Theatre in the Grove's 'Merry Wives of Windsor' does not leave you with that warm happy feeling of fellowship and camaraderie when you leave the theater. Performing Shakespeare well requires seasoned, well-trained actors, and though this troupe made a respectable effort, they fell a bit short. Nevertheless, there were numerous high spots and technical achievements that deserve commendation.

Director Paul Harwood wisely opted to minimalize the set and set changes. This is a play where the action occurs over a few days and in several locations; and rather than create a new set for each environment, he borrowed from the days of Shakespeare where physical signs were conveniently hung from hooks to signify the change in scenery.

Sharon Cunningham and crew worked their nimble fingers to create costumes resplendent with richness, honoring the spirit of the period. The Huntington Library must be wondering where their Thomas Gainsborough 'Blueboy' is because Doctor Caius' (Zachary Centers) costume is the epitome of English aristocracy.

Peter Stein's lighting design was delicate, gracefully capturing the changing hours and emotional turmoils. In one scene where the wives recounted their trickery upon Falstaff to their husbands, the lights dimmed and became bluish to signify the passage of time without any impediment to the action. And whenever Master Ford (Patrick Cox) waxed his jealousies at the threat of being cuckolded, the stage turned red as did the throbbing vein in his forehead. These transitional light cues were brilliantly executed by light board operator Thomas Rose.

As technically accomplished as this play was, there were spots where the actors' pacing ebbed and flowed, throwing the rhythm off-balance. I am not sure if the matter was the play itself or if the actors unconsciously responded to the disengagement by this particular audience. Shakespearean delivery is tricky, and I felt the actors at times were merely mouthing the words, thereby negating the true emotional resonance the play demanded.

The play's crux is the conspiratorial plottings by the Mistresses Ford and Page when confronted by Falstaff's romantic overtures. As played by Wendy Bax and Sharon Cunningham, it felt less like a conspiracy and more like a conversation between strangers. This figurative and literal distance between them afforded my sympathies to lie with Falstaff instead.

Special mention must go to Scott Malcolm and Pruella Centers as Sir Hugh Evans and Mistress Quickly. Malcolm brought an emotional maturity to his role, and it was a pleasure to listen to the tempo of his speech patterns. Centers' character provided much of the evening's humor with her expositions of this person's or that person's desires with her Katharine Hepburn-like delivery.

Shakespeare is not the easiest playwright to perform, and I have even seen the Oregon Shakespeare Festival misfire with Shakespeare occasionally. 'Merry Wives of Windsor' is a play where I think Shakespeare had difficulties in letting go. Either he loved these characters so much or he could not write an appropriate ending, and this dilemma resulted in a 2-hour-and-40-minute play. This is not Shakespeare at its finest but there are elements that are worth seeing.