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The well-dressed fool: Ingram as Falstaff in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

How Do I Look?

By James Yeara

The Merry Wives of Windsor

By William Shakespeare, directed by Tony Simotes

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., through Sept. 2

At 3,018 lines, with 2,703 in prose, and only 227 in blank verse, The Merry Wives of Windsor is one of Shakespeare’s longer plays. It’s also one of his least poetical, least rhythmic, and least organic; “prosaic” can describe Merry Wives unless a production of it lives up to the term “play” in all its meanings.

As befits Shakespeare’s most domestic comedy, Shakespeare & Company’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a work that celebrates the domestic upheavals of multiple domiciles, leaving the audience with an appreciation of Elizabethan fashion and modern stagecraft. The sets, costuming, lights, and sound were all excellent. Director Tony Simotes has well-blocked The Merry Wives of Windsor; the cast elocuted the text with clarity. The movements were exactingly executed, and all was as well-scrubbed and aseptic display of Elizabethan frippery as a theater maven would hope to find in the vast museums of Berkshire theaters. This is a The Merry Wives of Windsor short on “merry” and long on “Windsor,” the seat of royalty. It has the colors and pomp of a coronation—and also all the mirth of one.

As befits the 18th-century belief that the play was created at Queen Elizabeth’s request, The Merry Wives of Windsor centers on two desperate housewives of Windsor (a suburb of London full of wisteria), Mistress Alice Ford (the lovely Elizabeth Aspenlieder) and her best friend, Mistress Meg Page (the lovely Corinna May), Mistress Ford’s irrationally jealous husband Master Ford (the handsome Michael Hammond), and the errant knight Sir John Falstaff (the regal Malcolm Ingram) of Henry IV fame. For their money and their honey, Falstaff woos both Ford and Page, who conspire to humiliate Falstaff; they do, repeatedly, significantly in a laundry basket filled with filthy clothes and, at his second attempt at seducing them, by dressing him as a woman. Coupled with the various disguises all 21 characters wear at one time or another, The Merry Wives of Windsor could be retitled Much Ado About Couture.

Resident costume designer Arthur Oliver and assistant costume designer Jessie Darrell outdo themselves; the clothes do make the man and woman here. The rich palette of colors and fabrics fill the stage and hold the eye. The costuming is the fun of this The Merry Wives of Windsor. The French farthingales (bum rolls) of the women’s costumes accentuate their womanliness even as the padding of Sir John Falstaff’s crimson-with-gold-diagonal-slashes matching doublet (jacket) and galligaskins (pants) accentuates his manliness. The copper and black doublet of Master Ford, topped with his feathered Cavalier hat, screams “dashing” even before he dashes about in his mad jealous dashes. Each character, from Dr. Caius’ (the always excellent Jonathan Croy) baby-blue matching doublet and galligaskins to Justice Shallow’s (a devilish Mel Cobb) in midnight satin matching black frock coat and pants with gold piping galore, white stockings and shirt, was richly detailed, a specific burst of color and fabric that had all the fun and intrigue of Project Runway. Oliver and Darrell’s work was a sight to behold.

Prisoners With Money

A Nervous Smile

By John Belluso, directed by Maria Mileaf

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 6

It would seem the Nikos Stage has become the place to see edgy new plays with dynamic female protagonists. Between last year and this year, five out of the six offerings have had terrific female lead performances, even when the material (Lucy and the Conquest) was lacking. Arriving none too late to return dignity to the WTF, A Nervous Smile is in line with last summer’s best offerings there, Tough Titty and The Sugar Syndrome, the later of which was also directed by Maria Mileaf.

Like those two, A Nervous Smile takes a tough issue and explores it with lucid, sensitive direction and stellar performances of the sort Mileaf nurtured in Sugar Syndrome; Mileaf is clearly an actors’ director and someone to keep an eye on. The issue here is the toll that caring for severely handicapped children exacts on their parents. As such, the play is kin to Peter Nichols’ 1967 black comedy, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, and like Nichols, John Belluso is unafraid of writing sharp-tongued dialogue that represents the anger, bitterness and even rage that caregivers can feel towards their helpless and demanding charges.

While not as daring, dark or exhaustive as Joe Egg, A Nervous Smile approaches its subject with less humor but with a similarly realistic approach in its depiction of oppressed parents who consider extreme solutions to their burdens. Some moments, however, don’t seem entirely of a piece with the prevailing style of the play; the problem is in the suddenness with which the not-quite-fully-baked solutions are introduced and accepted. This is more the style of melodrama than naturalistic drama, but Mileaf and her cast don’t allow us to question it for long in this rapidly unfolding, neatly paced work.

Providing some of the nervous smiles are Amy Brenneman and Scott Cohen as Eileen and Brian, parents of Emily, a teenager whose cerebral palsy leaves her screaming to be cleaned, diapered, massaged and otherwise tended. Even the fact that Eileen’s great wealth allows them to have full-time help in the form of Blanka (a piquant Deidre O’Connell with a juicy Russian accent), Emily wants to be cared for by her parents. Also, despite her crippled condition, Emily has use of new technology that reveals the presence of intelligence.

Gloria Ruben also hides secret smiles as Nicole, an attorney whose 18-year-old son’s cerebral palsy is even more debilitating than Emily’s. Having met Eileen and Brian in a parents’ support group, Gloria has become their close friend.

Their stresses have led to the aforementioned anger as well as infidelity and, in Eileen’s case, a perpetual nervous condition alleviated only by drugs, sarcasm, stunning forthrightness—and a desperate hope pinned on an unusual escape plan.

Cohen bravely allows Brian to seem the least sympathetic of the three, but even in Brian’s selfishness Cohen enlists our empathy. His lengthy monologue wherein he spews his venom at years of servitude and compares Emily to a vampire is powerful and thought-provoking.

As the mothers whose maternal instincts are put to the most severe of tests, Brenneman and Rubin are spectacular, and each reveals small, excruciatingly truthful moments that raise the stakes while enlisting our identification. Despite the emotional hoops Belluso makes Nicole jump through, Ruben executes the challenge with an Olympian gymnast’s skill and poise. As Eileen, Brenneman occupies the center of the play and must travel the greatest arc, one that ends with a dangerous swan dive into uncharted waters. The production is fortunate to have Brenneman, who provides a remarkable grounding presence even as she is at the precipice of Belluso’s high diving board.

Vincent Mountain’s clean, almost neurotically perfect setting of Brian and Eileen’s rich digs proves that the Nikos Stage’s carpentry department hasn’t forgotten how to build sound and inviting, representational sets. It also strongly underlines the playwright’s additional concern with privilege and money.

Belluso, who died earlier this year, raises significant questions about the latter in an era when technological advances can bring abrupt changes and offer help, hope and meaning—to those who can afford it.

—Ralph Hammann

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