Situational Comedy

Situational Comedy

Sir John Falstaff, a British knight just returned from war, slides into the pre-industrial DMs of two wealthy married women, hoping to use their attentions as rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. Instead, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page compare notes and embark on a mission of trickery and tomfoolery to humiliate their duplicitous suitor.

It’s not the premise of the latest Jane Austen adaptation or an episode of Bridgerton. It’s the setup of something older: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Elm Shakespeare Company’s free presentation in Edgerton Park this summer, playing at 8 p.m. every night (except Mondays, and weather permitting) through September 3. A sitcom-like stage design helps this production of the lesser-known comedy, centering secondary characters from the Henry IV duology, feel modern. But the cast still performs traditional Shakespearean verse, a playfully mismatched approach the Company has used before to release the timeless humor oftentimes locked within the language of yesteryear.

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Merry Wives succeeds in this endeavor, and in general. The actors behind our titular wives, Liz Daingerfield (Ford) and Abigail C. Onwunali (Page), attribute much of this success to the “brilliance” of award-winning director Dawn Monique Williams. It’s highly unusual for Elm Shakespeare Company to bring in an outside director to lead their performances. But not only is Williams a lauded theater-maker, she’s also an avid proponent of The Merry Wives of Windsor—her dogs are even named Ford and Page—which makes her an outlier among Shakespearists. The play has a complicated reputation; much of its humor, centered around sex, class, ethnicity, beauty and body shape, hasn’t always been executed very tastefully.

In contrast, Onwunali says, Williams at the helm led to a production that was about “communal laughter; laughing with you, not at you.” The director’s love for the show is visceral, I’m told, as is her vision of it as a farcical sitcom whose plot relies on potent miscommunication and general absurdity. Onwunali describes it as a “kookiness” that is only increasing as the show’s run continues. “It’s subtle, literal nonsense… unhinged at this point,” Daingerfield says, laughing.

Contributing to the global summertime tradition of Shakespeare in the Park is only one facet of Elm Shakespeare Company’s activities. Many Wives cast and crew members are students or alumni of Southern Connecticut State University, where the Company is the theater-in-residence. Education and youth engagement are central year-round via camps, intensives, mentorships and performance opportunities for local kids and teens. Members of Elm Shakespeare’s high school acting internship program—Oliver Barber (John/Rugby), Hannah Leamon (Pistol), Mekhi Robertson (Simple) and Atlas Salter (Robin/William Page)—can be seen in Merry Wives. Daingerfield and Onwunali describe their youngest castmates with great affection. “They ask beautiful, brilliant questions,” Onwunali says. Daingerfield adds, “Every show they get bolder. They’re taking every opportunity to figure out who they are as artists. They keep us honest and proud for the next generation of actors.”

In front of the scenes, audiences are encouraged to bring blankets or folding chairs to sit on, bug spray for the occasional mosquito and snacks (because your neighbors will be picnicking and you will be envious). The 8 p.m. show runs two hours without intermission, preceded by a 7:30 musical performance by several cast members. Highlights of the main event include Master Ford’s (Walton Wilson’s) soliloquy set to Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” and the relentless physical comedy of our Mistresses Ford and Page as well as Falstaff himself (played by Elm Shakespeare veteran Raphael Massie).

This production of The Merry Wives of Windsor “is a beautiful embracing of culture,” Onwunali says. “It feels like a dip of New Haven poured into this show… It may be a little show in a park in New Haven, but it is a big thing I will carry with me for a long time.”

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Edgerton Park – 70 Cliff St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sun through 9/3: Seating 6:30pm | Music 7:30pm | Show 8pm

Written by Miki Cornwell. Image, featuring Abigail C. Onwunali, photographed by Isabel Chenoweth.

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