Two River Theater hosts two very different takes on Shakespeare’s comedy ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,’ beginning with Saturday’s first preview of a three-actor free for all. 

When William Shakespeare put quill to parchment and began work on The Merry Wives of Windsor, he probably wasn’t laboring under the illusion he might create something to be dissected by critics and scholars for hundreds of years to come. The more immediate tastes of the popular audience were calling out to him, and with Wives the busy Bard had the opportunity to spin one of his most crowd-pleasing creations — Sir John Falstaff, the portly and roguish companion to the future king in the two parts of his historical drama Henry IV — into a rowdy (and cheerfully out-of-time) little knock-down farce.

Beginning this Saturday night, the Two River Theater offers Red Bank audiences not one but two rather unique takes on one of Shakespeare’s silliest comedies: one an intimately scaled three-actor adaptation that goes in search of the play’s “dark undercurrent;” the other an abridged full-cast version showcasing a talented company of high school age performers.

Playing five preview performances prior to opening officially on Friday, March 3, the grown-up version of Merry Wives has been adapted into a show that runs some 90 minutes without intermission and directed by Eric Tucker, co-founder of the New York-based Bedlam Theater company. A specialist in small-cast rethinks of well known theatrical and literary masterworks (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sense and Sensibility, Saint Joan to name but a few), Tucker was named Director of the Year 2014 by the Wall Street Journal. Hr was inspired to give the downsizing treatment to Shakespeare’s comedy by Bedlam trouper Jason O’Connell — who, as the lone male member of this cast, gets to play a variety-pack of characters that includes Falstaff, the dishonorable dipsomaniac whose scheme to con and seduce a pair of respectable married ladies backfires on him in some comically unexpected ways.

Those merry wives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, are played here by Nicole Lewis (Broadway’s Rent and the Tony-winning revival of Hair) and Zuzanna Szadowski (who, as the maid Dorota on Gossip Girl, was called “the best part” of that TV series by Buzzfeed). Together, the three players take on the roles of nearly 20 husbands, sons, daughters, suitors, servants, authority figures and townsfolk.

The production continues through through March 26. Tickets ($20 – $70), full schedule details and info on special features or captioned/described performances are available here or by calling the box office at (732)345-1400.

The Merry Wives of Windsor will also be the subject of two public-welcome Shakespeare Play-Reading Group sessions, hosted on two successive Mondays (February 27 and March 6) in the second-floor Victoria J. Mastrobuono Library. Participants are invited to join Artistic Director John Dias in an out-loud reading of the play’s text, with a discussion of its language and meaning. No experience is necessary; copies of the play will be furnished at each reading, and coffee/tea plus light refreshments will also be provided.

Then, beginning with a set of four school matinees (March 7-10) and continuing with four public-welcome performances on March 10-12, a cast of 18 high school student actors (from Red Bank Regional, Christian Brothers Academy and several other Monmouth County schools) bring to life a 75-minute version of Merry Wives that’s being presented as this year’s edition of Two River’s annual program called A Little Shakespeare.

Red Bank resident Christopher Ferrigine (CBA) stars as Falstaff, with Christianah Akinsanmi as Mistress Page and Kaylee DeFreitas as Mistress Ford, in the production adapted and directed by Nicole A. Watson. Take it here for a full rundown of the young artists and their school affiliations — or here for ticket reservations ($12 – $20), complete schedule details, plus info about in-school pre-show workshops and post-show talkbacks with the cast.