Shakespeare in the Arb Returns
A couple of young girls seeing their first Shakespeare play sat behind me at the opening of Act I, scene 1, and I heard them whisper that they didn't understand what was going on. Well they shouldn't have worried--neither did I. Merry Wives begins like most Shakespeare plays, with one of those "Fie, prithee, well met" conversations between minor characters. In fact, I've rarely seen a Shakespeare play that I didn't spend the first half of it wondering who those guys were and what were they talking about--later it makes sense, if you care to loop back and think about it.
Anyway, once the main story got going, Martin Walsh playing Falstaff went a good way toward alleviating my disappointment that Merry Wives didn't work better in a woodland setting. Walsh wears the big, showboating role well, and he makes the lines sing too. Falstaff is a shameless, waggish old goat, who has the misfortune to trifle with two of Windsor's smartest, funniest matrons. Imagine Henry Kissinger writing mash notes to Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama as if they were a couple of Playboy Bunnies, and you get the idea.
The acting is uneven; some fresh and wonderful, some wooden and stumbling. Sometimes you can't hear what's going on. Not every actor projects well. A train went by, a helicopter buzzed overhead, and--one of the pleasantest distractions to a theatre experience ever--a bird sitting on a sapling looked over the audience and warbled loudly through an entire scene. All of this is more than counterbalanced by the pleasure being in the Arb on a June night in this universe, rather than in some impoverished alternate reality in which Shakespeare never existed.