LENOX -- No one would call ``The Merry Wives of Windsor" Shakespeare's finest play. Done right, though, it's fast, frivolous, and funny -- a merry evening indeed. And Shakespeare & Company does it right.
Under the sharply paced direction of longtime company member Tony Simotes , the silliness bubbles up without ever feeling forced. Simotes, best known as a fight choreographer, shows the sure hand that's doubtless required to keep actors from stabbing each other by mistake. He sends his high-spirited cast swirling around the stage in wonderfully clear patterns (aided by choreographer Susan Dibble for the charming dances that punctuate the action), and he gives them plenty of room for physical comedy without slighting the verbal humor of the piece.
Indeed, this production is remarkable for its textual clarity. Shakespeare & Company has made its reputation in part through its emphasis on speaking Shakespeare's words in such a way that they make sense to modern audiences. That training pays off beautifully here, in a play that can be muddled by obsolete slang unless the actors find ways, through tone and gesture, to get the jokes across.
Malcolm Ingram leads the way as Sir John Falstaff, the Rabelaisian knight who, according to legend, sparked the writing of ``Merry Wives." (Shakespeare dashed it off in two weeks, the story goes, after Queen Elizabeth I expressed a desire to see Falstaff in love.) Heroically padded and mustachioed, Ingram plays Sir John with touching, hilarious sincerity. He's a ridiculous man who never finds himself ridiculous -- the John Cleese of Windsor.
As the titular wives, Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Corinna May upend Falstaff's adulterous schemes with delightfully mischievous glee. Aspenlieder plays Mistress Ford with a slightly dizzy air, a nice counterpoint to May's more acerbic Mistress Page. As Mistress Quickly, Elizabeth Ingram (who stepped in at the last minute for Ariel Bock) gives a fully realized and highly amusing portrayal of this classically confused foremother to Mrs. Malaprop.
Perhaps most entertaining of all, though, is Michael Hammond's turn as the jealousy-maddened husband, Frank Ford. As Ford's suspicions build but can't be proved, Hammond achieves raptures of fury and frustration. And then he gets funnier. When Ford disguises himself as ``Master Brook" to trick Falstaff into confiding in him, Hammond puts on a black cape and eye patch that he must have ordered, along with the cheesy El Gato accent, directly from Acme Villain Supply. Every time Brook swoops onstage, Scott Killian's music delivers the crowning touch: a mustache-twirling flourish of bad-guy guitar.
That's just one signal that everyone involved is having a good time. Others include the deliciously wacky Frenchman, Dr. Caius, of Jonathan Croy; the outrageously foppish Slender of Dave Demke; the rakish Host, Josh McCabe ; and a whole flock of townspeople. Arthur Oliver's costumes embellish the fun with outlandishly elaborate bustles and pantaloons, which manage to evoke both the production's actual setting, Elizabethan England, and its spiritual home, the same crazy landscape where the Marx Brothers dwell. There are worse places to spend a few hours.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.