A few months into the pandemic, the reopening of theater a depressingly far-off and uncertain prospect, this reporter asked producers what they thought theater would look like when it returned. One common theme emerged: At least in the short term, some said, one should expect productions to make audiences happy. That wouldn’t mean dramas without drama, or relentless cheer, but after everything people had been through, the thinking was there had to be some emphatic on-stage uplift when seats were occupied again.
Merry Wives (to Sept. 18), the first Public Theater “Free Shakespeare in the Park” production to play in two years, is a raucous, 110-minute, no-intermission adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor by Jocelyn Bioh, who wrote the brilliant School Girls: Or the African Mean Girls. Directed by Saheem Ali with striking scenic design by Beowulf Boritt and vibrant costumes by Dede Ayite, the action switches from early 15th century England to South Harlem’s modern-day West African diasporic community.
“Black Lives Matter,” as written on one of the set walls, is a reminder of the times the play is set in, and the political and cultural bedrock of the production.
The characters and setting are “not an accident,” the Public’s director, Oskar Eustis, has said. “We are returning with a celebration of our immigrant communities of color and our certainty that Shakespeare can belong to all people, no matter who you are. We are back. New York is back. Come to Central Park to celebrate!” (A word to the hungry and thirsty: Bring food and drink from elsewhere, as the usual theater concession stands are not open—so, scandalously, no frosé. There is a little food truck that has set up just down from the theater, however.)
Ali and the cast revel in the mischief Pascale Armand as Madam Ekua Page and This Is Us’ Susan Kelechi Watson as Madam Nkechi Ford manipulate to bring down the priapic gamester John Falstaff (Jacob Ming-Trent), who will rue the day he ever tried to seduce both of them. The challenge for the women is to keep their husbands—Kyle Scatliffe as the laid-back Mister Kwame Page and Gbenga Akinnagbe as the more jealous Mister Nduka Ford—on side too.
Ming-Trent is an energizing delight on stage—cocky for not that long, before, like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, being thrown into a laundry basket and dumped in a river. Unlike Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Ming-Trent’s wittily breaks the fourth wall to commiserate over the long trajectory of the pandemic, as he also feels sorrier and sorrier for himself. He may be vain and self-absorbed, but he is also—as he says to the audience—as exhausted and done with everything as they all are.
Alongside his extended downfall is a charming queer love story featuring Abena as the Pages’ daughter Anne, who is extremely unhappy being paired off with Joshua Echebiri’s Slender, instead yearning for MaYaa Boateng’s Fenton/Simple.
If you love outdoor theater, then you will be especially enchanted when the Delacorte Theater stage quite literally opens up to reveal Central Park in all its night-cloaked, captivatingly lit (by Jiyoun Chang) glory—the perfect stage for the final attack on Falstaff by the group of “fairies” who are really just the lead characters playing one last joke on him, with Jessica Paz’s sound system design and Darrell Grand Moultrie’s choreography at their most propulsive.
The production, as intended by both Shakespeare and Ali and the cast, is a free-wheeling roustabout—although both make this critic wonder if the scale of the humiliations visited upon Falstaff ever match the scale of his onstage transgressions. He is, like so many vain men, all overinflated sense of self and talk—a laughable, rather than malicious, cove from minute one. Still, Merry Wives is a burst of welcome energy and humor, with a curtain call that doubles as a glorious dance party. Yes, New York theater is back, and—as Merry Wives makes clear—it bears repeating. Right now, audiences love to hear it as much as performers love to say it.