Stop. Adding. Bad. New. Songs. To Shakespeare.
There are several funny moments in Folger’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, going on now until March 1. There are some great performances (including one more-than-able understudy this weekend), a couple of fetching costumes, and some interchanges that pay off nicely. There is also, however, a pall of forced cheeriness that hangs over everything like a cloud of radioactive waste, poisoning it and making you feel sick.
Its most toxic manifestation is the insulting, patronizing, tuneless opening number director Aaron Posner has tacked on — with reprises popping up now and then to keep the fear of god in the audience. Folksy and heartless, it sets the circa 1972 production up as one that will never stop winking long enough to have clear eyes. It continuously reminds the audience, in its sunshiny exposition way, that you’re here to see a comedy! A Shakespeare one! The painful rhymes include “this is Windsor / so come right in, sir!” I’m calling the Hague.
It’s not the only song though. Because this Merry Wives is all bell bottoms and groovy shades, they also squeeze in several bits of pop-rock tunes from the day, which are also so awkward they kind of makes you look away, focusing on the tacky set, which looks like a church for people who worship Rhoda. The second-worst musical moment is when the fairies attack Falstaff (lit by blacklight, of course) to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” — a song that didn’t come out until 1975, for the record. But that’s like criticizing the drink service on the Hindenburg.
This farce about Sir John Falstaff (Brian Mani is little more than a punchline in his Army jacket and tie-dye t-shirt) trying to seduce the two happily married women of the title (Regina Aquino and Ami Brabson, luckiest when they get to exit) has never before been so clumsy or so broad. He chases them yon, they send him off hither. Supposedly hilarious fun is had with silly accents (French, Welsh) and their inability to be understood. Whenever the crew fears that theatre-goers have heard enough period dialogue, they drop it — one of the biggest laughs of the night comes from one character telling another he can’t have heard her complaint: “It was an aside.” Local actors including (but not limited to) Kate Eastwood Norris, Todd Scofield, and Ryan Sellers give it their level best while deserving so much better.
There’s a B-plot about three different men all trying to secure the same young woman, Anne Page, daughter to one of Falstaff’s would-be adulteresses. Anne enters holding some feminist signage, but don’t get your hopes up: Our path lies not that way. Anne and Fenton get to play cute on roller skates, however — a rare ’70s style choice that actually works.
This Merry Wives doesn’t trust its audience to enjoy it without all the bells and whistles and the silly Frenchman no one can comprehend. The last time a Shakespeare comedy got beaten up for its lunch money this badly on a local stage, it was Posner’s 2016 production of Midsummer, also for Folger, and also with some truly horrendous and unnecessary musical choices.
Do the damn play; stop singing. Or, at the very least, write better songs.