A delightful 'Merry Wives of Windsor' at Clark Park

Making "Merry" in Clark Park are (from left) Mary Tuomanen as Mistress Page, Robert DaPonte as Falstaff, and Jess Conda as Mistress Ford.
Making "Merry" in Clark Park are (from left) Mary Tuomanen as Mistress Page, Robert DaPonte as Falstaff, and Jess Conda as Mistress Ford. (MARIA MOLLER)
Posted: July 27, 2012

The Merry Wives of Windsor might be the most trifling of Shakespeare's comedic trifles. But with its broad humor and a plot as slender as, well, its character Slender, Shakespeare in Clark Park proves the Merry Wives' mettle as a delightful outdoor accompaniment on a summer evening.

This is Falstaff's command performance, written by Shakespeare in two weeks at the behest of Queen Elizabeth. She couldn't get enough of the big man in Henry IV, and wanted to see him try his luck with the ladies. The play is a pastoral affair, with country folk outwitting the knight - who hopes to seduce a pair of wives out of their husbands' money - children outwitting their parents, and love winning the day.

Director Rebecca Wright sets the frivolity in a sort of hillbilly hollow, against a backdrop of colorful sheets hanging from tiered clotheslines (designed by Maria Shaplin). Erica Hoelscher's costumes combine Granny Clampett aprons and housedresses, cowboy hats, overalls, and suspendered suits for a down-home look, while a trio of musicians led by Andrew Nelson provides countrified incidental music on banjo and guitar.

The theme works, not just because it dovetails nicely with Shakespeare's intentions, but also because it's happening inside the sloping grass bowl - a real-life hollow - at a neighborhood park, with dogs running past, children playing, and barbecues sizzling, a setting as informal as its subject.

Best of all, Wright assembled a cast bursting with some of Philly's finest young talent. From her side effort with devised theater company Applied Mechanics, Wright pulled Shaplin; John Jarboe, as a hilariously effete Slender; and Mary Tuomanen, as one of Falstaff's over-the-hill targets, Mistress Page. Brat Productions' cabaret queen, Jess Conda, makes for a hardy Mistress Ford. Reuben Mitchell, perhaps the highlight of last year's 1812 Productions comedy-news roundup This Is the Week That Is, as Ford's jealous husband Master Ford, finds the sweet spot between Chris Rock and Don Knotts; and, yes, there is one.

So, what of Falstaff? Robert DaPonte is young to don Sir John's belly padding, and he's not entirely successful at depicting a debauched hedonist at the bottom of his downward slide. But once the sun sets and Falstaff heads into the woods for a final assignation with the wives, something changes. He's ribald but sympathetic, and finishes strong.

You can say the same for Shakespeare in Clark Park's seventh season.


The Merry Wives of Windsor

Playing at Clark Park bowl, 43d and Chester Sts., through Sunday. Admission free. Information: 215-764-5345 or www.shakespeareinclarkpark.

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