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Geraint Wyn Davies as Sir John Falstaff in "The Merry Wives of Windsor"Stratford Shakespeare Festival /

T he Merry Wives of Windsor, Tony-winning director Frank Galati's gimmick-free production of which has opened the Stratford Shakespeare Festival season, is about the middle class, and the plot's motivating force is debt. For those who seek timeliness and relevance in their theatregoing, then: check and check.

Indeed, Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney may even want to pass out Shakespeare's script with his next warning on the dangers of living beyond your means. Like Falstaff, you too may end up hiding in a dirty laundry basket, or cross-dressing as an old lady, or perhaps even pinched by a fluster of fairies in the forest if you don't tackle that consumer debt before it tackles you.

Falstaff, transported from the medieval era of the Henry IV plays to the Elizabethan age by Shakespeare in response to popular demand, hatches an unorthodox plan to get out of the red, one familiar to followers of HBO's Hung. The knight of notorious appetites hopes to seduce two well-to-do married women, Mistress Ford (Lucy Peacock) and Mistress Page (Laura Condlln), and gain access to their purses.

Though Falstaff fancies himself a lady-killer, he ignores the cardinal rule of pick-up artistry: Never hit on two female friends at the same time. After Mistress Ford (Lucy Peacock) and Mistress Page (Laura Condlln) compare the billets doux they receive from him - form love letters, it seems - they hatch a series of escalating revenges on the fat knight.

The real gull here however is Ford (Tom Rooney), Mistress Ford's jealous husband, who catches wind of Falstaff's manoeuvrings and believes he will succeed. He makes a fool of himself time and time again in futile attempts to prove his wife's infidelity.

In Galati's straightforward and appropriately middle-brow production, this central story is told quite well and generates generous laughs. Wyn Davies's fat-suited Falstaff is a vain brother to his Bottom from a couple of seasons back - although this time he transforms himself into a beast in the woods, and the fairies who torment him are just local children in disguise. His charming speech is filled with the same trilled Rs and sibilant Ss, but Bottom's innocent eagerness has been replaced with an unapologetic dissoluteness. Puffed up in all senses, Wyn Davies's Falstaff is precisely the right degree of unlikable.

"I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass," he says as reality finally dawns on him, and Mistress Page is the one who has made him so. Condlln plays her with wry intelligence and a hint of hypocritical, middle-class moral superiority. Peacock's congenial Mistress Ford, meanwhile, titters away as the accomplice, as if this scheme is the most fun she's had in years.

The show is practically stolen, however, by Rooney's red-faced Ford, a seething study in wounded pride. Galati has devised a number of bits of suitably vulgar physical comedy that Rooney pulls off perfectly, as when he splashes Falstaff's foot-bath water on his face to cool his temper and it only heats up.

Galati's production is less successful in unravelling the complicated subplot involving the courtship of the Pages' daughter Anne (Sophia Walker, subbing in for an under-the-weather Andrea Runge on opening night) by three men. Slender (Christopher Prentice), the nephew of justice of the peace Shallow also beamed in from Henry IV, is favoured by Page; Doctor Caius (Nigel Bennett), a well-connected Frenchman, is inexplicably favoured by Mistress Page. As for Anne, she only has eyes for the young gentleman Fenton (Trent Pardy).

Shakespeare spends too much time with these fellows and their go-betweens, satirizing the milieu he grew up in. Malpropism-prone Slender gains most of our sympathy here thanks to a fantastically funny performance by Prentice, who has apparently been at the festival for three seasons but was hitherto unnoticed by me. He mangles the English language masterfully; his anxious ambivalence about marriage - and everything else - is a treat.

But the rest of these scenes seem pointless, and Galati can't find the humour in them - a fact only underlined from the frequent self-satisfied laughter from the characters themselves. Bennett's Doctor Caius, performed like an Inspector Clouseau, is an example of the sigh-inducing lack of invention.

The only real disaster, however, is in the terribly flat performance by Janet Wright of Corner Gas) as the housekeeper Mistress Quickly. The proceedings deflate whenever she arrives on stage - she seems to have little idea what to do with her body or the text. Alas, her character's name does not apply to her exits, but the show survives.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

  • Written by William Shakespeare
  • Directed by Frank Galati
  • Starring Geraint Wyn Davies, Tom Rooney, Lucy Peacock, Laura Condlln
  • At the Festival Theatre in Stratford, Ont.

The Merry Wives of Windsor plays at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival until Oct. 14.

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