New York City is getting another shot in the arm this summer with Free Shakespeare in the Park’s happy Merry Wives, playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s embraceable adaptation of the Bard’s The Merry Wives of Windsor starring Watchmen‘s Jacob Ming-Trent as that great, rotund creation Falstaff.
Briefly delayed by injury and Covid, Merry Wives opens tonight as a most welcome – and, with vaccines required, as safe as can be – escape from the woes of the world. With an update to a contemporary South Harlem peopled with a splendid assemblage of West African immigrant characters, Merry Wives enhances the classic farce with up-to-the-minute references (including, of course, Covid), the occasional brief snippet of R&B crooning, and a same-sex romance that seems completely at home in the setting.
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If the intermission-less production, directed by Saheem Ali, doesn’t quite reach the joyous heights of Kwame Kwei-Armah and Shaina Taub similarly updated Twelfth Night, it’s only because that marvelous 2018 adaptation in the Park set a standard that might loom over Central Park’s outdoor Delacorte Theater for some time to come.
A perfectly larger than life Ming-Trent leads a terrific, all-Black cast that includes Shola Adewusi, Gbenga Akinnagbe and, as the merry wives, scene-stealers Pascale Armand and Susan Kelechi Watson. All play on Beowulf Boritt’s lovely Harlem streetside set of three storefronts, each swiveling to double-serve as exteriors and interiors, conveying the sense of an entire community in microcosm. When the streetscape gives way to a late-play park scene, the set opens up to make grand use of the Delacorte’s own natural environment.
The bones of Shakespeare’s play remain, if fleshed out a bit with more than a little contemporary explicitness: The self-satisfied buffoon Falstaff sends identical “love” letters to two married women – Armand’s Madam Page and Watson’s Madam Ford – prompting these merry wives to plot an elaborate, farcical revenge that repeatedly sets Falstaff up to be humiliated or worse. Helping carry out the plan is good-hearted Mama Quickly (Shola Adewusi), a schemer to rival even the devious Falstaff.
There’s also a jealous husband (Akinnagbe), a trusting husband (Kyle Scatliffe), a fearful preacher at odds with a blustering doctor (Phillip James Brannon, David Ryan Smith, respectively), and a neighborhood elder (Julian Rozzell Jr.) who wants to marry off his timid nephew (Joshua Echebiri) to the daughter (Abena) of one of the merry wives.
Alas, for the nephew anyway, that daughter, Anne Page, has eyes only for the earnest and equally smitten young Fenton, here played by MaYaa Boateng and giving the production a same-sex twist that works beautifully. The opposition of Anne’s father to her relationship with Fenton takes on added reverberations.
This still being a Shakespeare comedy, all’s well that ends well, and all ends especially well with a visually magnificent scene involving spirits attired in African costumery (designed by Dede Ayite) and a lighting display (designed by Jiyoun Chang) that emblazons the Central Park surroundings with the vibrancy this city has so missed.
Free Shakespeare in the Park’s Merry Wives opens at the The Delacorte Theater in Central Park tonight and runs through September 18.