By Dale King
Among the dusty, shopworn show biz mottos kicking around the darkened back rooms of theatrical venues is the phrase, “Always leave them laughing.”
That’s undoubtedly how we’ll remember this year’s class of fine arts students from Florida Atlantic University’s Department of Theatre and Dance, who conclude their 2017-2018 season this weekend with a raucously witty retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The acting troupe, most of them now well-known to those of us who frequent the performances at FAU’s Studio One Theatre, takes the Bard’s comedy and makes it even more amusing by changing its time frame and location. They move the setting from Windsor in England to modern-day America, in “an alternate present, West Palm Beach, at the exclusive and exotic Club Windsor.” They even tinker with the name, making it into The Real Merry Housewives of Windsor.
Thus, participants are free to cavort in shorts, slacks and swimsuits rather than Elizabethan garb, and carry around golf clubs, tennis racquets and cocktails.
Just hearing Shakespeare’s Renaissance English coming from the mouths of upper-class folks is enough to make you laugh aloud. In fact, it frequently does.
The production is elegantly over the top, with actors going the limit to keep the audience in stitches. Director Lee Soroko prevents the occasionally overwrought action from getting out of hand.
This show concludes with performances Friday, Saturday and Sunday. While it’s the final show of the regular season, student performers return for two Summer Repertory productions, Noel Coward’s Easy Virtue and Kander and Ebb’s Cabaret.
Merry Wives marks the return of Sir John Falstaff, Shakespeare’s immortal loud, brutish buffoon with a love for liquor, ladies and money. Gray West employs lots of gusto portraying him. Unfortunately for Mr. Falstaff, he’s not very good at seduction, and his overall ineptitude puts him in lots of embarrassing spots. To say he occasionally gets caught with his pants down is no exaggeration.
In this production, Falstaff sets his libidinous sights on two merry wives, Mistress Page (Jessica Eaton) and Mistress Ford (Rachel Finley). He tries to lure them to his boudoir with suggestive letters.
But it turns out the missives are worded exactly the same, except for the names at the top. And since Page and Ford are best buddies, they quickly compare notes and pick up on Falstaff’s lame plan to arrange a couple of torrid trysts. After that, they turn the tables on the Big Guy at every turn
Sean Patrick Gibbons, a two-season favorite, hits the stage with a heavy dose of high-energy, scene-stealing hilarity as Mistress Ford’s husband in what may be his best showing yet. Fearing he is being “cuckolded,” he explodes with comic wrath, pounds a massage table with a towel, jumps into a wagon of dirty laundry and pops out, his hair wildly askew, screaming about being wronged. He even resorts to a disguise so he can keep watch on Falstaff undetected.
While all this is taking place, Shakespeare has thrown in a subplot involving Anne Page, daughter of Master and Mistress Page, who is being wooed by at least two suitors, if not more. Petite and perky Erin Williams portrays Anne with waifish gentility. She is sought after by Master Slender (Jesse Veliz) and Master Shallow (Stephen Kaiser).
Perhaps thinking that students would someday carry his play’s comedy to the next level, Shakespeare has added Peter Simple (CJ Borger) to the lot. Tara Collandra plays Pistol, Kamilah Douglas is Nim, and another popular FAU player, Gabriela Tortoledo, makes frequent, rapid appearances as Mistress Quickly.
All of this Shakespearean tomfoolery comes to a crashing finale in a wooded area near a mystical tree. The full cast gathers on stage for the event concocted to be the definitive embarrassment for Falstaff.
Hint: This dark scene involves lots of fairies, and Falstaff is the one wearing the antlers.
The Merry Wives of Windsor bows out with shows Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Studio One Theatre on FAU’s Boca Raton campus. Tickets can be purchased at www.fauevents.com or by calling 1-800-564-9539.