RED BANK: MAKING ‘MERRY’ IN MARCH

Zuzanna Szadowski, Jason O’Connell and Nicole Lewis are the whole company in the Two River Theater staging of Shakespeare’s ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,’ playing through March 26. (Photos by T. Charles Erickson. Click to enlarge.)

Whether it was an amateur outing in a gnat-infested public park or a top-ticket import from London’s West End, veteran observers of William Shakespeare’s works have by now gotten used to seeing the great dramatist’s plays twisted, teased and teleported into all manner of settings — more than a few of which might have made him flip his folio.

From Romeo and Juliet in modern Miami and Hamlet on Wall Street to a World War II Richard III and a Tempest on a planet named Altair IV, it seems as if there’s no place in space or time from which the Bard is barred — and at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, where last year we saw Pericles re-imagined as the world’s most epic saloon story, the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor continues for two more weeks, during its long-term stay at the sort of roadside motel that would normally specialize in hourly rates.

As envisioned by set designer Lee Savage, the “Garter Inn” of the circa-1600 play is the sort of place that only Norman Bates and his mother could love, its dingy paneled walls and better-wipe-it-down decor interrupted here and there by crudely taxidermed wildlife and peeping-tom paintings.

That said, what sets this production of Wives apart from its centuries of predecessors isn’t the no-frills accommodations but the “econo” approach to its casting, with a trio of hardworking actors filling some 20 roles — one of which is performed at various points in the proceedings by each of the three players.

Presented without intermission in the Two River building’s “black box” Marion G. Huber Theater, the production bears all the hallmarks of New York’s Bedlam Theater and its co-founder, Eric Tucker, who has made a specialty of just this sort of small-plate approach to family-style classics, including his unabridged four-man Hamlet, which rotated recently in repertory with G.B. Shaw’s Saint Joan at Princeton’s McCarter Theater.

For this project, he’s done considerable cutting and condensing of Shakespeare’s full-length comedy, leaving several surplus characters stranded at the side of the road in the process. The necessarily fast-moving farce —  actors dart in and out of doorways and dive beneath beds, as they effect the lightning-round changes of persona called for by this adaptation — manages to preserve the spirit of what was never one of the playwright’s most solemnly serious works. But as a formal introduction to the stage classic, it’s an experience that calls for reinforcements from the theater’s thoughtfully furnished synopsis and notes.

The author himself played fast and loose with the historical timeline when he wrote Wives as a showcase for the character of Sir John Falstaff, picking up the scene-stealing rotund rascal from his two Henry IV plays, and plopping him down into a farcical fracas of amorous misadventure and comical come-uppance that looks to be more or less aligned with Shakespeare’s own era, some hundred or so years later. Blowing into town with his less than trustworthy cronies in tow, the old schemer hatches a plot to seduce (and separate from their husbands’ money) a couple of respectable local ladies, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. When the objects of his faked affections compare the very similar love letters they’ve each received — and when cronies Pistol and Nym rat on Falstaff’s plans to the husbands — the well-marinated knight finds himself subjected to a series of increasingly humiliating retributions.

Actor Jason O’Connell (who’s co-credited with the idea for this three-for-all) casts aside the roly-poly blowhard of so many other stagings in favor a Falstaff who’s leaner, a bit meaner, and something of a singles-bar snake in a skin of leather blazer. He’s joined by Nicole Lewis (Broadway’s Rent and Hair) as Mistress Ford, and Zuzanna Szadowski (TV’s Gossip Girl and The Knick) as Mistress Page, with the trio of actors going on to conjure up more than a dozen other husbands, daughters, sons, innkeepers, parsons, cronies, pages and Pages (a typically Shakespearean subplot revolves around the marriage arrangements of Mistress Page’s daughter Anne, to a nephew of the local justice).

Digging deep into a theatrical trunk full of funny accents, tics and body language, the actors make an impression with characterizations like O’Connell’s sleazy and stumble-tongued pastor Evans; Lewis’s mile-a-minute messenger Quickly; and Szadowski’s loutish henchman Nym. Other voices and choices may serve to confuse the casual viewer — particularly those roles in which more than one performer has a go — and the more playful contributions of adapter Tucker (there’s a less-than-tender sex scene involving a bag of money, at least one reference to Rambo, and a not-inappropriate finale that plays out the audience to the tune of the theme jingle from Three’s Company) drive home the point that this interlude of nasty Merry-ment is here to entertain, and maybe shouldn’t be used as your sole source when throwing together that school essay.

The Merry Wives of Windsor continues with performances Wednesday through Sundays until March 26. Full schedule details and ticket reservations ($20 to $70, with discounts for groups, seniors, U.S. military personnel, their families, and veterans) are available here or by calling the box office at (732)345-1400.

The season continues in April with The Women of Padilla, about which more to come on redbankgreen. And watch this space for news on the imminent announcement of the 2017-2018 slate of shows at Two River Theater.

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