It is often said that Queen Elizabeth I commissioned The Merry Wives of Windsor, a spin-off of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, out of her fondness for the iconic character, “Sir John Falstaff.” That may be true, but in the Shakespeare in the Park commedia dell’arte adaptation, “The Scary Wives of Windsor,” Falstaff is largely pushed to the side and the spotlight shines brightest on The Wives.
It is kind of a shame because the Falstaff of the original is a scheming sycophant who, despite and/or because of his repulsive demeanor, is one of the most hilarious characters Shakespeare ever created. The Falstaff of “Scary Wives,” played by UCSB alum Jak Watson, is a stripped down facsimile of that character, now an aggressive id, made entirely of penises, who struts around the Anisq’ Oyo’ Park stage rubbing himself and giggling at nothing in particular.
Watson’s Falstaff, as in the original, sends love letters to two married, merry women, propositioning them for the only thing he ostensibly knows how to do.
These wives plot to humiliate the lascivious knight through the proper application of hijinks and hilarity. The wives, played by Garrett Ward and Nico Kiefer, end up more “Real Housewives” than “scary,” and are easily the best part of the show.
Ward, as the vengeful “Mistress Ford,” is a blondie with a Brooklyn accent who waddles across the stage like Marilyn Monroe on the Tour de Franzia. Kiefer’s “Mistress Page” is the brunette of the pair — basically a J-Woww with her grand, pink bow — whose speech shifts between the Bard’s vernacular and our own. In fact, most of the characters in the play use that strange combination, but it would have been much funnier if the shifts were more seamless.
The rest of the performances are fine. Page’s daughter, played by Andrea Rodriguez, speaks exclusively with a high-pitched pixie mew that quickly becomes grating, though her adorably kitten-like movements save the performance. Lex Bene’s “Pistol,” the scorned, conniving toadie, snarls like a Power Ranger villain behind the other characters and possibly makes the best use of the play’s commedia aesthetic.
The best supporting performance comes from the ever-delightful Allie Granat, whose guffaw-inducing “Mistress Quickly” dominates the stage with hilarious Southern crass.
Directed by Gerry Hansen, the play moves along brusquely and has no dull moments. The famous laundry basket scene is particularly well-paced and infectiously funny, validating this viewer’s belief that the minimalist nature of Plays in the Park is its most endearing aspect.
Though entertaining, “The Scary Wives of Windsor” comes off as a bit restrained. On one hand, the play’s original conception is widely considered one of Shakespeare’s weakest works, which makes it the perfect candidate for satire without absolute sacrilege. While “Scary Wives” brilliantly captures the compulsive schadenfreude of Shakespeare’s comedies, it feels like a missed opportunity for something even bigger.
Then again, bigger has never really been the forte of Plays in the Park, and as it is, “The Scary Wives of Windsor” is a hugely entertaining homage to Shakespeare’s most famous spin-off.