"The Merry Wives of Windsor" probably was as close as Shakespeare got to marginally intimate comedy. It is said he wrote it for Queen Elizabeth I because she wanted to see his comic nobleman Sir John Falstaff in love. It cannot be said that Falstaff falls in love in the play. Lust is closer to the mark.
After sending identical mash notes to Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, the rotund knight plots the bedding of these two worthy and happily wed ladies with a lascivious glee that can only be called Falstaffian, as in randy, besotted excess.
That he isn't even vaguely successful in his quest, and in the process is humiliated, abused and abased, is the show's one joke. The Fords and Pages have a fine time bringing him to his shame and the real romance in the play, the secret romance between a gentleman named Fenton and the Pages' nubile daughter Anne, is of course quite happily and easily resolved.
Director Tom Bradac knows that this highly stylized affair is a bit of a stretch for his young cast at Chapman University's Waltmar Theatre, and he wisely throws in a generous dollop of slapstick to help the actors along. (For those who wonder where the word originated, there's even a real slapstick on the stage, used by Mistress Page [Kathleen Tingley] to thwack Falstaff [Robert E. Harrison]).
Bradac's tempos are brisk, in keeping with his lucid editing of the script, and if he allows some excess to a few of his actors, it is all in the spirit of Shakespeare's romp.
Harrison's Falstaff is as gleeful as he can be in his quest, and if the actor doesn't delve too deeply into the character's lecherous subtext, he does provide some amusing physical shtick to make up for his lack of drooling satyr and moral abandon. Bonnie Walker, as Mistress Ford, and Tingley fare better: As virtuous wives with revenge on their minds, they maintain a firm grip on the high Elizabethan style.
Also close to the target are Christian Denton's kinetic Dr. Caius, Matthew McCray and Anne Marie Nest as the laid-back and charming young Fenton and Anne, and Tina M. Yerkish as the conniving Mistress Quickly.
If Andrew Moran's Page is a bit static, Christopher Zinovitch's Ford is intricate and well-rounded, a very sure performance. Wesley Hunt's Justice Shallow is carefully wrought and effective, but Aaron D. Kellner, as his foppish nephew Slender, affianced to Anne, is, while funny at times, overdone both in effeminacy and posing.
Standouts in the supporting cast are Susie Huarte as Hostess of the Garter Inn, with a sense of the voluptuous period type; Peter Westenhofer, juicy and bumbling as Welsh parson Evans, and Benjamin John Branson as Simple, servant to Slender.
* "The Merry Wives of Windsor," Waltmar Theatre, Chapman University, 333 N. Glasell, Orange. Wednesday through Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 4 p.m. Ends Sunday. $7. (714) 997-6812. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Robert E. Harrison: Sir John Falstaff
Matthew McCray: Fenton
Wesley Hunt Shallow
Aaron D. Kellner: Slender
Christopher Zinovitch: Ford
Andrew Moran: Page
Peter Westenhofer: Sir Hugh Evans
Christian Denton: Doctor Caius
Susie Huarte: Hostess of the Garter Inn
Benjamin John: Branson Simple
Bonnie Walker: Mistress Ford
Kathleen Tingley: Mistress Page
Anne Marie Nest: Anne Page
Tina M. Yerkish: Mistress Quickly
A Chapman University School of Communications Arts Theatre and dance department production of a comedy by William Shakespeare, directed by Tom Bradac. Scenic design: Craig Brown. Costume design: Wilma Mickler-Sears. Lighting design: Stacey Westbrook. Original music/sound design: Chuck Estes.