By William Shakespeare
Directed by Tina Packer
Shakespeare & Company Mainstage
Lenox, Mass (413) 637-3353 Through September 1st

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

Tina Packer has set her "Merry Wives" in a Windsor that is located in the American Wild West, "vaguely, somewhere between 1750 and 1890". In her program notes Packer gives three paragraphs of reasons for the transposition, but the main one seems to be to adjust the accents of the town's "insiders" and "outsiders" to correspond to American comic conventions. Falstaff ( Jonathan Epstein ) remains an English Knight, but his followers Pistol and Bardolf and Nym are Mexican mercenaries.

Old Justice Shallow ( Craig Bacon ) becomes the familiar south-western politician, in frock coat and string tie a mixture of gentility and bluster. Sir Hugh Evans the Welsh Parson becomes in Johnny Lee Davenport 's performance Hugh Evans the Baptist Preacher. I miss the Welsh Sir Hugh -- even though I know his Protestant persona is anachronistic in the Catholic England of Henry IV or V. But for those less attached to the lilt of the Welsh language, Davenport's Bible-thumping Preacher is a splendid substitution -- except for his putative Baptist's ghastly popish habit of crossing himself!

Allyn Burrows plays Doctor Caius the French physician in a velvet coat and 18th century curled wig -- and indeed, Caius is the character who is most consistent whenever or wherever the play is set. Burrows differs from other Caiuses principally by carrying the physical comedy of the role to the furthest possible extreme. This is, of course, one of the great strengths of this company, with its emphasis on physical training. Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford form a study in bodily contrast. Karen Beaumont 's Meg Page is flatfooted and downright, a plain woman conscious of her lack of feminine appeal but confident in her other attributes. Beaumont attacks every scene straight-on and full force, never doubting that she will carry the day. Cecil MacKinnon 's Alice Ford is a woman with some pretensions to Beauty, a closet romantic whose soul is hemmed in by a small town and a small-minded husband. She swoops and retreats, launches herself into the grand and graceful gesture and then, insecure, reins herself in. As with all Packer's comic actors, no opportunity for horseplay or pratfalls is ever passed by.

Shakespeare & Company also excels in the depth of its human resources, and in Packer's directorial ability to use them to add depth without losing focus. The huge outdoor stage becomes the panorama of a frontier town, with labeled swinging doors at intervals across the stage. It looks rather like a town square set up for a medieval Mystery Cycle, with "houses" for each of the locations where the action will take place: the Ford house, the Page house, the Garter Inn Saloon, Dr. Caius' apothecary, the church where Pastor Evans will hold forth, a covered wagon for Falstaff's entrance and his headquarters, and even an outdoor privy. A whole community seems spread out before you at the Mount. Townspeople come into the scene from great distances, taking their time and interacting with their neighbors as they do, yet you only become conscious of them at the moment when their presence is relevant to the scene. Although you have the sense that much more is going on in the background than you can possibly take in at a single viewing, the narrative controls the center of attention. This teeming sense of small-town life seems exactly right as a setting for domestic farce, whether the town is 1400 or 1600 Windsor, or an America town in any era.

I confess to a great fondness for "Merry Wives", which Packer disparages as "a jolly romp, put together... in a very short time ... written to entertain (with no) darker or hidden meaning." Somehow the very modesty of this play gives me the cozy notion that I am peering into the poet's workroom: that store of social experience out of which the more ambitious work was crafted. I am overjoyed that I've had the opportunity to see it four times in little more than a year, and delighted to be able to report that Jonathan Epstein, an actor whose performances in a half-dozen roles are a among the high points of my lifetime of theatre going, is a superlative Falstaff. Epstein's is a traditional Knight, ballooned by a fat suit, and one who would clearly be at home in the wars or the taverns of Henry IV. But Epstein's Falstaff is out of his depth in this new middle class world of opportunism and the Protestant work ethic. All the old rogue's attributes are still with him. He has not lost his force or his wit. Still, he is no match for the New Women, with the New World code on their side. Even after being drenched the first time and beaten the second, the fat knight falls into a third trap of fairy-fright and public humiliation.

Mrs. Ford's husband, Frank, is as frenzied as Leontes or Othello in his jealousy, but Eric Corbett Williams emphasizes the comic ineffectuality of Ford's rages so that he never seems a real danger to his wife. Williams dashes around at astounding speed, trying to set up the delicto scene where his wife will be exposed, Falstaff --- whose confidences he has bought disguised in electric blue sportcoat, porkpie hat, and horn rim glasses as Brook, the ultimate geek---punished, and his own husbandly strictures vindicated. But all this rushing around fits right in with the wives' plan to demonstrate publicly to Ford that his jealousy is inappropriate because "Wives can be merry, and yet honest too".

Falstaff's scheme to woo both women to get access to their prosperous husband's money plays out pretty much the way it always does, except for one brilliant moment Epstein and MacKinnon have embedded within the artifice of the first wooing scene, where both partners are attempting to manipulate the emotions of the other by a pretended attraction; one moment in which the play-acting gives way to reality. Epstein' Falstaff is astonished to find himself alone with a beautiful, respectable woman. Suddenly, he believes his lies, and sees himself as a lover! His whole character is transformed in an instant. MacKinnon's Alice Ford hears the rare note of sincere vulnerability in the knight's voice. She, too, is caught up, and responds -- all her romantic longings rushing to the surface and bringing a flush to her cheeks. The moment is quickly over, and the cold game of seductive trickery is on again. But what a moment, what a revelation!

Another revelation is supplied by Craig Oldfather in what I have always considered to be the hopeless role of the Host of the Garter Inn. I don't know how he does it, (although the charismatic cowboy costume must help) but every outmoded bit of cussing and bluster that makes up the Host's nearly incomprehensible lines comes out as a reasonable remark made to a specific person for a specific purpose. Thanks to Oldfather, the minor subplot about the Germans and the horses works, for once.

Another surprising success is Ariel Bock 's youngish gossip of a Mistress Quickly, played as a good-hearted Southern busybody whose mouth runs as fast as her drawl will permit it to. On the other hand, I can only assume that one of my favorite scenes, the Latin quiz Sir Hugh gives to the Pages' small son William, failed to make the translation to America. In this production it is missing entirely.

All the pageantry and nonsense of the final Herne-the-Hunter fairy scene is in place, however, including the now-meaningless extended tribute to Elizabeth I's Knights of the Order of the Garter. The text doesn't matter much, though, because the whole Shakespeare & Company crowd is there, couples and graybeards and children in filmy white, cavorting and sporting in the spooky shadows cast by candle-lit cattle skulls, and generally bringing matters to a festive and communal end in the perfect deep and moonlit leafy grove of the Mount.