Genesius Guild's The Merry Wives of Windsor is a study in comedic styles, particularly in comparing the portrayals of Bob Hanske's lothario Falstaff and Andy Curtiss' hot-headed Ford. Hanske offers a vocally robust - and, thanks to costume designer Ellen Dixon, physically robust - performance that's delightfully buffoonish in his mannerisms and goofball inflections. Curtiss, on the other hand, plays his part of the jealous husband whose wife is coveted by Falstaff almost without accentuating its humor, choosing instead to allow his fluctuating anger to carry the comedy. And both actors are hilarious in their roles, stealing the show every moment they're on stage.
Hanske, I believe, couldn't be more in his element, relishing the opportunity to play Shakespeare's villain in a way that renders Falstaff kind of endearing rather than hatefully evil. Falstaff's actions are deplorable, of course, considering he sends the same soliciting letter to two women in order to get their money via extra-marital affairs. But Hanske's Falstaff is also a fool, a jester, in a way that elicits lots of laughs as he walks about in dopey fashion or acts the oblivious idiot when hidden in a basket of dirty laundry. This is, I have no doubt, among Hanske's finest performances yet.
Curtiss, who charmed me as Joe in the District Theatre's Angels in America productions last fall and earlier this year, abandons sympathy in favor of dramatic temper, with Ford's crescendo of emotions effectively carrying the weight of his humorous deliveries. (The comedy is aided by the audience knowing that Ford thinks his wife is plotting adultery, when in truth she's toying with Falstaff in a mischievous, shaming way.) Curtiss, though, goes beyond his lines' intrinsic amusement, adding adept timing and expert pauses that heighten the humor.
Shakespeare's comedy, however, is mostly about two women, and Alaina Pascarella and Mollie Schmelzer share a palpable chemistry as the titular wives Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. (This chemistry is important, as there is, after all, a line in the play about how the women are so close, they'd likely marry each other if their husbands died.) Both actors also possess undertones of darkness in their presences, suggesting that they could unleash violent animosity at any moment, and as the mistresses plot to taunt Falstaff, this gives their comedic routines an edginess befitting the story. Pascarella and Schmelzer are, as they should be, strong women with sharp minds and a talent for mischief.
Beyond the central performances, what's titillating about director Karen Erickson's production is her scene changes. Accompanied by peppy, buoyant incidental music, the actors oftentimes enter and interact with each other before scenes, then freeze into funny tableaux that, on Saturday, made it difficult for me not to crack a smile. There's a lot of joviality in Erickson's Merry Wives and it's infectious, aided by the repeated use of a recorded, Shakespearean drinking song featuring the lyrics "So merrily, and every among so merrily" - an earworm that I've still got stuck in my head.
Also notable is Neil Tunnicliff for his clownish dandy Slender, the man who's wooing Page's daughter Anne, and Chelsie Ward has a delectably sexy entrance marked by swaying hips that's as funny as it is sultry. Michael Currie is fast becoming one of my favorite Genesius Guild actors for his poise and nuance, which are here employed to portray Justice Shallow, while Brian Lindell's hysterically, absentmindedly clumsy (and French-accented) Dr. Caius delighted me to no end. Jacob Lund also impresses with his Cockney accent and adorability as Slender's servant Simple.
Though I've highlighted my favorite elements of Genesius Guild's The Merry Wives of Windsor, I must also admit that it isn't among my favorite Shakespeare plays, as this seems one of his shallowest works, and one that relies too heavily on double entendre. Still, this presentation of the text is rather enjoyable, and Erickson's direction is highly commendable for the joy it displays.
The Merry Wives of Windsor runs at Lincoln Park (11th Avenue and 38th Street, Rock Island) July 11 and 12 at 8 p.m., and more information is available by visiting Genesius.org.