MONMOUTH — Maintaining order has seldom seemed as disorderly as it does in the first Shakespeare production of the 50th season at the Theater at Monmouth.

Amber Baldwin as Mistress Page, Bill Van Horn as Falstaff and Caitlin Ort as Mistress Ford in the Theater at Monmouth’s production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” Photo by Aaron Flacke

“The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a critically undervalued play from the pen of the Bard, has packed in audiences for centuries. Director Catherine Weidner has placed her abridged take on the play in Windsor, Maine, in 1948 and updated the style of the work accordingly. Physical comedy may triumph over Shakespearean subtleties.  But the play’s sense of folksy fun (with just a little message attached) remains and is difficult to resist.

Middle-class wives Mistress Page and Mistress Ford learn that John Falstaff, an aging rogue, is out to seduce each of them and thereby gain access to their husbands’ money. The women, who are not at all interested in the portly fellow, decide to take charge of things by subjecting Falstaff to a series of pranks that will publicly embarrass him and restore order to their world.

Amber Baldwin and Caitlin Ort, as the wives, embody a pair to be reckoned with as they delight in the success of their righteous schemes. With their conspiratorial giggles and little celebratory dances, the actresses entertainingly reveal their characters’ high-spirited grip on the controls of domestic power.

Bill Van Horn’s Falstaff is all bluster and dishonest intent. But he also gains a measure of sympathy for his fate at the hands of those he hoped to deceive. The veteran actor carries it all off, even some rather low comic effects, with an eye to his character’s gruff charm.

Lawrence James is a major comedic force as Master Ford, whose unfounded jealousy leads him into embarrassments of his own. Whether taking on a nerdy disguise to manipulate Falstaff or frantically seeking to uncover his own cuckolding, James hilariously mines the comic potential within his role.

James Noel Hoban plays the peacemaking Master Page, notable getting in the middle of the best physical scene in the show: a sword-fighting duel between Dr. Caius (Robert Najarian) and Mr. Shallow (Mark S. Cartier). Purists will note the absence of Sir Hugh and a few other characters from this fast-paced production.

Caitlin Duffy, as the Host of the Garter, frantically mediates between all the eccentrics around her, furthering the collective comedic moment.  Twelve-year-old Joseph Dolan nails his character’s exasperation at the antics of the adults he serves. Tessa Martin, as housekeeper Quickly, earns laughs by slyly besting her social betters. Sarah Goldman and Jaron Crawford play the young lovers who overcome class and familial barriers through deceptions of their own. Quinn Corcoran, Michael Dolan and Robbie Harrison round out the cast and contribute to the broader sense of community which is successfully established in this production.

Period costumes and sets, along with some choice jazz on the soundtrack, flavor this fun-filled concoction that traces back to a mighty pen and forward to the world in which we live.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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