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Making merry with ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’

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Ben Layman as Falstaff attempts to woo Mistress Ford (Deb Elz Hammond) while Mistress Page (Aimee Gerow) looks appropriately horrified in this scene from Ten Bucks Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor." Ben Layman as Falstaff attempts to woo Mistress Ford (Deb Elz Hammond) while Mistress Page (Aimee Gerow) looks appropriately horrified in this scene from Ten Bucks Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor." (Photo courtesy of Ten Bucks Theatre Company/Barrett Hammond)

Ten Bucks Theatre Company presents Shakespeare’s classic comedy

BREWER – One of the Bard’s most charming and beloved rogues is prowling and scheming his way through Indian Trail Park in Brewer, courtesy of Ten Bucks Theatre Company.

The group’s production of William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” – the latest installment of their longtime Shakespeare Under the Stars series – is running through July 30 at Indian Trail Park (with no July 29 performance) before moving to Fort Knox in Prospect for a run from Aug. 3-7.

It’s the tale of Sir John Falstaff and his knavish efforts to woo his way into some easy money. Only it seems that the objects of his affection are more than capable of turning the tables. And when the women’s husbands catch wind of the scheme – sort of – things begin to go off the rails for Sir John.

Along the way, there’s a love triangle between a French doctor, a noble dandy and a young woman who’s interested in someone else entirely. Plus there’s a Welsh guy who talks nonsense and an old guy who’s a bit confused, as well as a nice dumb fellow and a bunch of ineffectual yahoos.

Falstaff (Ben Layman) has arrived in Windsor short on money. To raise funds, he hatches a plan to court two wealthy – and married – women. He writes two identical letters addressed to Mistress Ford (Deb Elz Hammond) and Mistress Page (Aimee Gerow) and orders his companions to deliver them.

The men refuse and an enraged Falstaff fires them, leading them to tell the women’s husbands – Ford (Ron Lisnet) and Page (Gregory McElvaine) – about the knight’s plan. While Page is unconvinced, Ford’s jealousy leads him to enlist the inn’s hostess (Moira Beale) to help disguise him so that he might get close to Falstaff and learn more about his scheme.

Meanwhile, Ann Page (Natalie Lisnet) is at the center of some romantic turmoil. Her father wants her to wed the dandy Master Slender (Nathan Reeves), while her mother would see her marry the Frenchman Dr. Caius (Nathan Roach). She’d prefer to marry Fenton (Reed Davis), but her parents disapprove. Welsh pastor Hugh Evans (Ryan Collins) enlists the servant Mistress Quickly (Jennifer Snow) to assist Slender’s courtship along with the fop’s uncle, Justice Shallow (Garrett Fitzgerald).

And then, the wooing starts. Falstaff woos the two women, who instantly spot him for the cad he is and decide to make some sport of him. Caius and Slender both woo Ann Page – and both are utterly ineffectual in doing so. So. Much. Wooing.

Cue the Shakespearean hijinks. Tricks upon tricks and schemes upon schemes as the titular merry wives take it upon themselves to make sure everyone involved gets what’s coming to them – and have great fun along the way.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” isn’t one of Shakespeare’s best-known works. The play’s (possibly apocryphal) origin story is that Queen Elizabeth wanted to see Sir John fall in love, so the Bard barded a Falstaffian romance. Regardless, plenty of critics consider this one a lesser light that comes off as hastily-written.

But, I mean – even lesser Shakespeare is still Shakespeare. Sure, there’s some credulity stretching here and there and some of the usual sense of poetry is hampered by the script’s prose-heaviness, but there are still plenty of laughs to be found here.

That’s thanks in no small part to the Ten Bucks crew diving into the piece with their typical zeal. This is not the first Shakespearean rodeo for director Julie Lisnet – and it shows. She has injected moments of emphasis into the proceedings without trying to overwhelm the text. It’s honest storytelling – a seemingly simple thing, yet one that can easily be left behind when doing Shakespeare.

Layman is pure ego as Falstaff, a roaring boor whose shady character supersedes his considerable charisma. He’s a fool who doesn’t know he’s a fool – Layman captures that irrational confidence with a crackle and a twinkle. As the titular wives, Hammond and Gerow are a dynamic comedic duo, exuding an aura of mischievous intelligence and complete self-possession. Hammond’s delight in leading Falstaff by the nose is equaled only by Gerow’s sharp joy found in the artistry of their plot; in their best moments, there’s a whiff of Lucy and Ethel.

Ron Lisnet is delightfully dry as Master Ford, imbuing his lines with an engaging sardonicism, while McElvaine gives Master Page a broad jollity that balances the scales nicely. Reeves is campily over the top – in the best way – as Slender. Roach and Collins are hilariously incomprehensible as they lean into their Frenchness and Welshness, respectively. Natalie Lisnet and Davis are just the right amount of cute, while Beale and Snow lend some much-needed sauciness to the scene. Garrett Fitzgerald, Ael Fitzgerald, Erin Fitzgerald, Alex Kearns, Brittany McElvaine, Seth Pinkham and Deanna Rice fill out what is a solid ensemble.

As always, Indian Trail Park remains a lovely place to see a show. There’s nothing quite like outdoor Shakespeare; it’s an idyllic theatergoing experience – the Bard under broad skies. And when that show is brought to life by a group as joyful and devoted as Ten Bucks Theatre Company, well … so much the better.

And there you have it - “The Merry Wives of Windsor” will make you merry indeed.

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