Bioh and the Bard make an imperfect marriage in 'Merry Wives' at Shakespeare in the Park

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    In one scene in The Merry Wives of Windsor at Shakespeare in the Park, Falstaff (played by Jacob Ming-Trent in top form) declares his intentions to dishonor the wealthy Mister Ford by seducing Ford’s wife: “I shall hang like Lebron James on his cuckold’s horns!” The fact that the line, a mash-up of contemporary lingo and Shakespearean verse, works so well is a testament to Trent’s committed performance.

    Playwright Jocelyn Bioh has adapted Shakespeare’s Merry Wives into a modern play. She does so by combining Shakespeare’s verse with modern vernacular and culturally specific idioms. Unfortunately, while entertaining in parts, this marriage of language and styles makes for a sometimes tonally dissonant work.

    Merry Wives is billed as a joyful experience, a way to welcome New York City’s artists and its audience back to the theatre. Mounting a comedy at Shakespeare in the Park was a smart decision: after 2020, the last thing anyone wants is a Shakespearean tragedy. Joy and laughter is the essential medicine after a year of Covid-19.

    In that area, Bioh understood the assignment. Her Merry Wives features an all-Black cast and is set in Harlem, where African immigrants live alongside African Americans, and you can tell those two groups apart by their clothing: bold, colorful prints versus sneakers and jeans (Dede Ayite did the eye-popping costume design). In this Harlem, Trent’s Falstaff (a character that appears in three of Shakespeare’s plays) schemes to seduce the wealthy Madam Page and Madame Ford. Yet the merry wives are not to be fooled, and when they turn the table on Falstaff, hilarity ensues.

    It’s Shakespeare’s situational comedy, not very deep or profound (there’s an overreliance on fat jokes). Under Saheem Ali’s direction, the actors were encouraged to be expressive and physical with their acting. And Ali assembled an impressive team. Led by Trent, the cast comprises some of the best stage actors working today: Pascale Armand, MaYaa Boateng, Philip James Brannon, and Susan Kelechi Watson of “This Is Us.” After the restrictiveness of 2020, it was infectious to see these talented actors let loose on a stage together.

    Unfortunately, there is a reason that the original Merry Wives of Windsor is rarely performed. Unlike Shakespeare’s better comedies, the characters in Merry Wives are broadly drawn. The relationships are also underdeveloped, so when conflict occurs, there’s little emotional investment in those moments on the part of the audience. It’s also ironic that the men have more dialogue scenes in the play than women, considering the female-focused title and how the women are responsible for bringing the narrative to its climax.

    Since this is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play commissioned by the Public Theater, I wish Bioh had been given room to add more depth to the characters, especially the women. Armand and Watson are magnetic as the merry wives, and the play would have been stronger with more scenes between them. This was also an opportunity to make Anne Page (Abena) something other than an object to be won and married off.

    Even though she does not add any new scenes to Shakespeare’s play, Bioh does improve upon it and gives it a contemporary urgency. In Bioh’s version, Anne’s lover Fenton is now a woman (Boateng), a smart decision that adds an undercurrent of homophobia to the Page family’s disapproval of Fenton. It’s a bitter note to an otherwise frothy play. Because if you’re going to adapt Shakespeare, you might as well expand upon and improve upon the material.

    Then, when the characters convene in the woods for the coda of the play, Mama Quickly’s original monologue is completely replaced by a Bioh-penned prayer: “For our hues and lives matter, full stop. Here in the forefront and not a backdrop.” And, “Now is the time for the reformation. Now is the time to rebuild the nation!” It is not Shakespearean in the slightest and the play is better for it.

    Bioh proved in her hit play School Girls, or the African Mean Girls Play that she knows how to expertly balance comedy with bite and heart. She manages to bring a vitality and humanity to Shakespeare’s imperfect play. Together, these two bards, old and new, are telling all of us that after a year of pain and isolation, now is the time to be merry and make some mischief.

    The Merry Wives of Windsor is at Shakespeare in the Park at the Public Theater to September 18.

    Photo credit: Merry Wives of Windsor (Photo by Joan Marcus)