Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Merry Wives of Harlem

Theatre in New York never completely went away. Even in 2020 while the virus was raging in the city, Blessed Unrest put on an outdoor production of Battle of Angels, and this summer, I've had a chance to see King Lear and Twelfth Night in parks in Manhattan, as well as The Alcestiad on Roosevelt Island and an indoor production of The Disciple.

That's why it seemed a bit presumptuous for the Public Theater to introduce this summer's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor as the return of theatre to New York. Still, after last summer's cancelations, this year's show was more than welcome. The Delacorte Theater in Central Park still isn't operating at full capacity, as there are special social-distancing sections, but the audience who did get in for the production I saw last night thoroughly enjoyed the play.

While The Merry Wives of Windsor isn't Shakespeare's greatest play (in fact, a good case can be made that it's his worst), adaptations of it have sometimes proved successful. Verdi's opera Falstaff, for instance, has some great music that papers over the weak plot. Generally, productions of Shakespeare succeed when the hew closely to their source material, but this play is an exception. That's why I welcomed news that the text had been adapted by contemporary playwright Jocelyn Bioh.

Reset in a community of African immigrants in contemporary Harlem, Bioh's adaptation cleverly finds ways to utilize the source text to comment on a very different time and place than Shakespeare's England. Doctor Caius is a French physician in the original, but by making him from Francophone Africa, Bioh is able to keep his ridiculous speech peppered with French words and phrases. The Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans becomes Pastor Evans, who is fortunately not Welsh. (How does one even make Welsh jokes in New York?)

The center of the show, however, is Falstaff, played in this production by the wonderful Jacob Ming-Trent. The moment he appears on stage, we know exactly who he is--not so much a player as a player-wanna-be who somehow still manages to win us over with his charm.

This production is still running until September 20th, so sign up for the digital lottery and get your tickets soon!