STAGE-MERRYWIVES

Jacob Ming-Trent, left, and Joshua Echebiri in the Free Shakespeare in the Park production of “Merry Wives.” — Joan Marcus

NEW YORK — I’ve never found Shakespeare’s proto-sitcom, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” particularly funny. Too contrived — a bit of a chore, really. That is, until I sat in steamy Central Park the other night, watching the uproarious surgery playwright Jocelyn Bioh, director Saheem Ali and company have applied to make the comedy a garden of earthy delights.

Built around a captivating star turn by Jacob Ming-Trent as a perfect 21st-century clown of a Falstaff, this agreeably over-the-top “Merry Wives” moves to a Harlem block of African immigrant-owned businesses. (Windsor now being the name of an apartment building.) Framed by set designer Beowulf Boritt’s realistic storefronts of a laundromat, health clinic and Senegalese hair-braiding salon, Ming-Trent and 16 other actors lead us giddily through a farce of savvy wives, gullible suitors and scheming lovers.

New York is certainly primed for a silly season, which the Public Theater, orchestrator of the entertainment, takes admirably to heart. “Merry Wives” returns drama to the park after the pandemic washout of 2020 interrupted the 59-year tradition of free Shakespeare at the Delacorte Theater. Being back is a bona fide breath of fresh air: Attendees can choose to sit in “full capacity” sections, for which they must present proof of vaccination and can go maskless. In the separate, physically distanced sections, vaccination cards are not required, but masks are mandatory.

Although I’ve missed the pleasure of being with other people and laughing, Shakespeare’s comedies have never made that easy for me, and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” has proved the toughest sit of all. It is believed Shakespeare wrote it in 14 days, at the behest of his No. 1 fan Elizabeth I, who so enjoyed incorrigible John Falstaff in the two parts of “Henry IV” that she asked for an encore. If you think of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” as one of show business’s first spinoffs, you grasp the less-than-ideal pressures under which the play might have been created.

Bioh, author of the buoyant “School Girls, or, the African Mean Girls Play,” about beauty pageant prep at a West African academy, puts her vivacious spin on the spinoff, and director Ali gorges winningly on the froth. There’s a conspiratorial air of mischief drummed up — helped by actual drum compositions, by Farai Malianga — that’s heightened by the collective energy of this African community. Dede Ayite’s explosion of costume colors for characters of all shapes and sizes aids greatly in highlighting the big personalities immersed in this game of get-the-fool.

The company excavates all the pleasure, too, in Shakespeare’s sly notion (also tailor-made for her great patron) that women rule. Pascale Armand and Susan Kelechi Watson as the Madams Page and Ford, respectively — the merry wives of Bioh’s shortened title — never for a moment let us forget that this is all their saucy practical joke. One of the butts of it is Madam Ford’s extravagantly possessive husband, portrayed by the sublime Gbenga Akinnagbe, who is allowed some rewarding runway here for his comic range. (He played the tragically and wrongly accused Tom Robinson in Broadway’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”)

The room in this production for exceptionally well-crafted comedic support extends to a host of players: Joshua Echebiri, as a nincompoop of a Slender; David Ryan Smith, playing the simperingly pretentious Doctor Caius; Angela Grovey, sympathetically devious as Mama Quickly and Kyle Scatliffe, as a gallant Mister Page. Playing the story’s secret lovers, MaYaa Boateng and Abena generate an affecting chemistry.

Ming-Trent, though, pulls off the perhaps the most challenging assignment: satisfying the expectation for a larger-than-life Falstaff without pushing the predictable bombast button. This vainest of Falstaffs is a genuine slob whom Boritt houses in a shabby bachelor pad wallpapered in purple zebra stripes. That the character takes on faith that women of the chicness of Madams Page and Ford would look at him twice sets up deliciously the finely timed shenanigans that follow. Even the wacky hide-and-seek machinations in the laundromat, into which Ebony Marshall-Oliver’s silent clerk is amusingly drawn, have their joyful payoff.

Bioh and Ali fooled me, too. Out of a “Merry Wives” skeptic, they made a believer.

The Washington Post

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