When watching the best Shakespeare performances, there’s no question about what’s taking place. Even to ears unaccustomed to Elizabethan English, these performances seamlessly relate every thought and nuance of the Bard’s work.
Quill Theatre’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” currently onstage at Agecroft Hall as part of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival, ain’t it. In fact, at times it’s really hard to follow.
Directed by Aili Huber, even the play’s setting isn’t entirely clear. Where are we? Given that Master Page (Bryan Austin) looks like he just walked off a golf course, Mistress Page (Donna Marie-Miller) wears some sort of riotous Lily Pulitzer top and Shallow (Liam Storm) is dressed like a judge in a John Grisham adaptation, I’m going to guess we’re in the South; the electronic program, scanned by QR code, offers no help.
For the uninitiated, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” centers on Sir John Falstaff (Steve Holloway), the vain and boastful knight who appears in three Shakespeare plays and is eulogized in a fourth. Short on cash, Falstaff decides to woo two wealthy married women, Mistress Ford (Amber James) and Mistress Page. When these women, who are repulsed by Falstaff, learn they were sent identical love letters, they decide to teach him a lesson by pretending to play along.
According to legend, Shakespeare wrote the play at the request of Queen Elizabeth I to show Falstaff in love. While literary critics may regard it as one of Shakespeare’s lesser works, it’s long been popular with audiences. After all, who doesn’t like seeing a pompous jerk get what’s coming to him?
Here, too, there are problems. Falstaff is usually played broad and boastful; Holloway’s take is dry and flat. He’s supposed to be a buffoon, but this Falstaff seems practically disinterested with his own schemes. And the actors surrounding him seem like they’re in their own versions of the show, as if, after being cast, they learned their lines and simply showed up for the performances. Then there are the accents of some of the minor characters, which manage to be both bad and impenetrable.
While some actors manage to create their own laughs, it’s usually from bits of their own concoction; rarely is the humor of Shakespeare’s text fully used for comedic effect.
Still, there are bright spots. Robert Thomas Gotschall as Master Ford clearly portrays his motivations and earns his own laughs as he spies on Falstaff. Marie-Miller and James are humorous as they scheme against the knight, and Nicole Morris-Anastasi is amusing, playing the Host of the Garter Inn as a rad skater dude.
But overall, I can’t recommend this show as a good use of your evening. Catch a Flying Squirrels game instead.
Quill Theatre’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” plays through June 26 as part of the Richmond Shakespeare Festival at Agecroft Hall, 4305 Sulgrave Rd. For more information, visit agecrofthall.com.