Sir John Falstaff was a lovable scoundrel in Shakespeare’s “King Henry IV, Part 1,” and a pathetic scoundrel by the end of Shakespeare’s “King Henry IV, Part 2.” And in “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Shakespeare keeps heaping on the abuse, making him a legend in his own fun-loving mind but the butt of everyone else’s jokes. There’s a bit of Charlie-Brown-tries-to-kick-the-football in this story: Just like Charlie keeps trying, even though Lucy pulls the ball away every time, Falstaff keeps coming for more no matter how many times he ends up being proven to be a fool.
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison is closing the year with the comedy, just as it did last year with another Shakespeare comedy, “Much Ado About Nothing.” As “Much Ado” director Scott Wentworth did last year, “Merry Wives” director Bonnie J. Monte (who is also the Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director) adds some holiday season touches, with a wreath and some mistletoe, but they seem like afterthoughts. That’s not a problem, though, since “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is quite amusing without anything extra added.
The central storyline of the play has the comically conceited Falstaff — who, with his gray hair and ample belly, looks like more of a Santa Claus than a Romeo — trying to woo two married ladies simultaneously, unaware that they are (1) not interested and (2) plotting, together, to embarrass him in spectacular ways.
David Andrew Macdonald, who plays Falstaff, makes him seem more dim than dissolute; he projects a confidence and smugness that makes his series of defeats particularly satisfying. He also negotiates the physical humor — with Falstaff hiding out in a clothes basket, for instance, or disguising himself as a woman to escape detection from a jealous husband — quite gracefully. Caralyn Kozlowski, as Mistress Alice Ford, and Saluda Camp, as Mistress Margaret Page, let us know how delicious it is to undermine a buffoon. (At the same time, though, Macdonald’s Falstaff shrugs everything off, so you never really feel sorry for him, or that they’re being unduly nasty at his expense.)
In the smaller roles, Jon Barker and Ames Adamson make the biggest impressions, generating a lot of laughs with the thick accents of their characters — the French Dr. Caius and the Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans, respectively.
Scenic designer Jonathan Wentz cleverly uses movable parts to create an ever-changing set, depicting the various buildings where the action takes place.
This is not a radical reinterpretation, but a good, solid, classy presentation, capping another excellent year for the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (which, unlike most other Jersey theaters, has a season that runs from May to December).
The play will be presented through Dec. 27. Visit ShakespeareNJ.org.