If you’ve heard that Shakespeare in the Park of the Public Theater, a much-missed source of amusement in this spectacle-hungry city, has reopened the Delacorte Theater after the winter and summer and second winter of our dissatisfaction with “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and thought, huh? you are not alone. The haters of the play are legion. Harold Bloom called it a “tiring exercise” and insisted that even Shakespeare despised it. The feminist argument that “Merry Wives” is a proto-screwball comedy in which women triumph and men look like fools doesn’t quite make me give up my place in the naysayers camp. Shakespeare’s plays are full of brilliant, funny women, and the happy women of Merry Wives aren’t the main characters. Legend has it that Will wrote the play within ten days at the behest of Queen Elizabeth, who asked him to show Sir John Falstaff, the cheerful, fat knight of “Henry IV”, in love. The Queen Elizabeth part is probably apocryphal, but I’d bet money on the ten-day theory.
This production, directed by Saheem Ali, does not erase the play’s flaws; the comedy is still wide-ranging, the characters flat like poster dummies. However, it creates new strengths. The main reason for this is Jocelyn Bioh, who freely adapted Shakespeare’s script, shortened the title to “Merry Wives” and relocated the play to a West African corner of what is now Harlem. To stage Shakespeare in the contemporary world is basically a matter of course; At this point, the radical move would be to dress the cast in doublets and pants. But Bioh, who, like the bard himself, is a playwright and actor, has well justified her choice in terms of content. In the original, Falstaff, whose ambition to seduce the two wealthy titular women sets the narrow conspiracy in motion, compares one of his future lovers with “a region in Guyana, all gold and bounty” and proclaims that the women “will be mine”. East and West Indies, and I’ll trade with both. ”Bioh skillfully translates these colonial metaphors into post-colonial reality. Her Johnny Falstaff (Jacob Ming-Trent), dressed in a Tupac T-shirt that leaves nothing of his luscious belly to the imagination, crows that one of his goals is “from a region in Ghana, all gold and bounty”; when he explains that women “should be sugar mothers for me,” the familiar phrase suddenly leads us back to the New World of Shakespeare’s time, where the brutal sugar business, fueled by European demand, fueled the transatlantic slave trade and set the stage for it the world we know now.
Bioh is the American-born daughter of Ghanaians, and Ali, as his biography says, is “a proud immigrant from Kenya”; In her “Merry Wives,” diversity is the key to comedy and community, as was the case with Shakespeare, who provided his script with a hollow Welshman and a grandiose French doctor, both chattering in absurd accents that the English do intended to tickle the speaker’s ear. In Bioh’s version, Madam Nkechi Ford (Susan Kelechi Watson) and her stuffy, jealous husband Mister Nduka Ford (Gbenga Akinnagbe) come from Nigeria, while the nice Mister Kwame Page (Kyle Scatliffe) and Madam Ekua Page (Pascale Armand), their neighbors in a house aptly called Windsor are Ghanaians. Senegalese Doctor Caius (David Ryan Smith) is allowed to keep his audience favorites “zees” and “zats”, and the Welshman is now an equally tasteless Liberian (Phillip James Brannon). However, with his shameless appetite, crazy plans, and hopeless optimism, Falstaff is thoroughly American. He really believes that sending identical love letters to two best friends will lead to success, God bless him. Instead, he is stuffed into a laundry basket and thrown into the river, disguised as an old man and beaten with a stick and finally adorned with a cuckold’s horn, while society disguised as ghosts has fun terrifying him to the core of an inch of his life. The hustle and bustle may be real, but this hustler is a prankster.
Much of it is a good time, but too much still sags. The characters spend most of the play announcing their intention to do things and then do them. For Screwball to sing, the action has to move fast, fast, fast, but Ali’s largely static direction of this almost two-hour, non-stop piece has too many emptying pauses and relies heavily on exaggerated gestures – belly claws, lascivious looks – to signal humor, instead of creating it. Much of the joy of the production lies in its scenic design by Beowulf Boritt, which charms by bringing the sidewalks, braiding salons, and laundromats of Harlem to Central Park, and – sacrilege! – the best moments come when Bioh shakes off Shakespeare completely to get to the contemporary. Among the amiable ensemble, I particularly liked Shola Adewusi as Mama Quickly, the neighborhood aunt who has a finger in everyone’s cake, and the mononymous Abena as the Pages daughter, Anne, who rubs against the patriarchal customs of hers Parents have imported the Old World and can put a stupid admirer in his place with a skeptical grunt. A single spectacular moment at the end of the play compensates for the fear of admittance – even outdoors Delta keeps rubbing shoulders with strangers – when the performers in rustling grass skirts and ceremonial masks gather for Falstaff’s Comeuppance. The set slides away and we are back in the park, transformed by music, light, dance and song into a world that is African, American, Shakespeare and for a few minutes pure magic.
There’s another production that’s going to change the way you see Central Park, but it’s only going to run for a week, so if you want to see it, you’d better run. Whether or not you take this advice literally is up to you; the performance “Endure: Run Woman Show”, which follows the story and the run of a nameless marathon runner who paves a five-kilometer path along the south side of the park, invites willing spectators to jog with them. When I saw the production on a cloudy Wednesday afternoon, a handful of intrepid souls had surfaced in spandex – though it was a relief as a person who thinks running a marathon and a vacation on the moon are equally plausible activities to be safe in a friendly prelude from director Suchan Vodoor that walking would be enough.
Either way, you’ll be fitted with a headset (or use your own) through which you can hear the show’s creator and writer, Melanie Jones, sing a monologue touching the fear and heartache that drove her protagonist first drinking and then running, and that makes the punishing mental and physical discipline – defying self-doubt – that their training requires visceral. Her words are brought to life by one of two cast members, Mary Cavett or Casey Howes, each with a different way of portraying the character. I saw Howes, an exciting dancer and choreographer who seemed to be equal parts woman and Capricorn. She stood in front of our group for a moment, her hair tied in a swaying braid, a water bottle belt tied around her waist, staring into our eyes as if challenging us to question her perseverance; in the next she was gone, scurrying out of sight until, as we turned the bend, she appeared on one of the slate hills of the park, which she had climbed in her sneakers. Part of the thrill of the show is never knowing which tableau you’ll find next: Howes hangs from a branch to do a quick series of situps or drives his legs while upside down while the narrator describes the hellish struggle of pushing your way through the middle mile race. The simple story told by “Endure” lifts the mind just as effectively as the elegantly executed staging moves the body. Meanwhile, life in the park continues undisturbed, private monologues are played on private stages as far as the eye can see. ♦
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