It's been speculated that Queen Elizabeth I enjoyed the character of Falstaff so much she asked Shakespeare to write something else with him in it. Thus, we have one of the earliest examples of a sequel of sorts with The Merry Wives of Windsor. Though it definitely lacks brevity, it's an amusing trifle for the most part, and St. Louis Shakespeare has put together a generally fine production of the play.
Falstaff is low on funds and hatches a scheme whereby he will seduce both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, in order to take advantage of their wealthy husband's respective largesses. But, their closeness isn't counted on, and duplicate love notes are discovered and compared by the pair. For sheer amusement, they decide to make sport of Falstaff. Played against this farcical nonsense is a subplot concerning the choice of suitors for young Anne Page. While she prefers poor Fenton, her parents have their own ideas. Since this is one of Shakespeare's comedies, nobody dies, and everything works out in the end.
Martin Casey plays Falstaff, and he accurately approximates the corpulent knight's heavy frame, but he lacks the playfully arrogant countenance one has come to expect from the role, and as such, his performance falls a bit flat. However, Jamie Marble and Suki Peters excel at toying with Falstaff's emotions in the roles of Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, respectively. Ben Ritchie is excellent as the extremely jealous and protective Master Ford. He's been made aware of Falstaff's plans to woo his wife, and goes undercover in an eccentric disguise in order to glean further information and thwart his advances.
Casey Boland as the French physician Doctor Caius, displays a knack for mangling English with a Pythonesque flair. Emily Adams brings considerable energy to her role as Mistress Quickly, the Dr.'s servant. Sure, both are over the top, but it adds to the sense of fun. Solid support is also provided by Chris Jones, Marissa Barnathan, Austin Pierce, Chuck Brinkley, Phillip Dixon, Paul Devine, Carl Overly, Tim Callahan, Ben Watts, John Wolbers, Joshua Nash Payne, and Emily Jackoway.
Director Todd Pieper makes the most of the merriment, but the first act just goes on far too long, even though a fairly good pace is maintained throughout. Cristie Johnston has designed a serviceable set, and Jennifer "JC" Krajicek's costumes evoke the era in fine fashion; James Slover's uninspired lighting scheme keeps the action clearly defined, but lacks any real sense of mood.
The message Shakespeare may have been trumpeting here may have been not to "mess with the ladies", and that part works like a charm, but since this play was really designed to give us more of the irascible Falstaff, it's a shame he doesn't come off better.
The Merry Wives of Windsor played through July 24, 2011 at the Grandel Theatre.