By Tulis McCall
Merry Wives is the new offering at The Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park. It is a joyful, snappy, energizing and inspiring event. Merry Wives is a slightly edited version of Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor. Jocelyn Bioh has reshaped the text – removing a couple of characters, editing long speeches and snipping away unneeded scenes minor events – but has kept the story in tact. Saheem Ali’s direction pulls the elements together in a seamless and often hilarious and definitely welcomed production. From the moment that drummer Faria Malianga leads us in a chant we connect with the cast and join the celebration.
The location for Merry Wives has been changed from Windsor to Harlem but the plots remain the same. Leading the charge is Falstaff (Jacob Ming-Trent) who is decidedly misguided and enjoys every minute of it. He comes up with the idea of seducing two women of the town: Madam Nkechi Ford (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Madam Ekua Page (Pascale Armand). These are two merry wives indeed, and in addition they are also the dearest of friends, which is why Falstaff’s adventure is skewered from the get go. When he writes the same letters proclaiming his passion and desires to both women – the EXACT same letters – no sooner are they delivered than they are compared and scrutinized. The two women take the reins and prepare the charge to undermine Falstaff.
The other plot that never makes a splash as large as the Falstaff is the hand of Anne Page (Abena, who does double duty as a very funny melancholy hairdresser) which is being sought by three suitors. Slender (Joshua Echebiri), Doctor Caius (David Ryan Smith), and Fenton (MaYaa Boateng). As a further sidebar, Mister Nduka Ford (Gbenga Akinnagbe) decides to take things into his own hands and expose both his wife and Falstaff.
These plots whirl around each other without pause or intermission. That is right – so be prepared to sit for nearly two hours. One would assume that this is Covid related in order that people spend less time mingling. It actually serves the production because the pacing never gets a change to lag.
The whole shebang works and then some. One of the main reasons is that a few of these actors are clowns in the most brilliant sense of the word. Susan Kelechi Watson grabs the position of head clown who is having so much fun it is all you can do to stay in your seat and not join her to gallop about the stage. Pascale Armand and Jacob Ming-Trent are a hair’s breadth away dancing their own magic dances. David Ryan Smith and Shola Adewusi (Mama Quickly) are also hilarious standouts whenever they appear on stage (which is not offend enough!)
In the end no one dies, which makes it a comedy. There is the obligatory Shakespearian round up finale scene where surprises are doled out with a few contemporary cherries on top that tweak the story to deliver it into the 21st Century.
A brilliant way to return to the theatre. Get there if you can. It will do your heart good.
MERRY WIVES by William Shakespeare, adapted by Jocelyn Bioh, directed by Associate Artistic Director and Resident Director Saheem Ali.
Scenic Design Beowulf Boritt, Costume Design Dede Ayite, Lighting Design Jiyoun Chang, Co-Sound Design Kai Harada & Palmer Hefferan
WITH: Abena (Anne Page), Shola Adewusi (Mama Quickly), Gbenga Akinnagbe (Mister Nduka Ford), Pascale Armand (Madam Ekua Page), MaYaa Boateng (Fenton/Simple), Phillip James Brannon (Pastor Evans), Brandon E. Burton (Ensemble), Joshua Echebiri (Slender/Pistol), Branden Lindsay (Ensemble), Ebony Marshall-Oliver (Ensemble), Jarvis D. Matthews (Ensemble), Jacob Ming-Trent (Falstaff), Jennifer Mogbock (Ensemble), Julian Rozzell Jr. (Shallow), Kyle Scatliffe (Mister Kwame Page), David Ryan Smith (Doctor Caius), and Susan Kelechi Watson (Madam Nkechi Ford).
MUSICIAN – Drummer Faria Malianga
The program featured a new acknowledgement:
The Public Theater stands in honor of the first inhabitants and our ancestors. We acknowledge the land on which The Public and its theaters stand – the original homeland of the Lenape people. We acknowledge the painful history of genocide and forced removal from this territory. We recognize the sacrifice that these ancestors made. We honor the generations of stewards and we pay our respects to the many diverse Indigenous peoples still connected to this land.
HONORING SENECA VILLAGE
The Public Theater also honors and celebrates the people and legacy of Seneca Village, one of the earliest free Black communities in New York City, which was located in what is now Central Park from 1825–1857.
NB Due to current Health and Safety protocols, there will not be any day-of-performance, free ticket distribution lines in Central Park, in the boroughs, or at The Public’s flagship on Lafayette Street.
Instead, this summer, free tickets will be distributed entirely via an advanced digital lottery hosted by GOLDSTAR. For more information go HERE.