Shakespeare did it first

Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival presents The Merry Wives of Windsor

4 minute read
Canales, in flamboyant orange 60s garb, gleefully tips a leopard-printed Greer, scared by Peakes, into a canvas cart.
From left: Taysha Marie Canales, Scott Greer, and Karen Peakes in PSF’s ‘Merry Wives’. (Photo by Kristy McKeever.)

A modern spin on Shakespeare may be the most well-trodden ground in theater today, and that’s because when it works, it really works. The anachronistic transposition can breathe astonishing life into a centuries-old thing, and remind us that much of what we assume is “modern” originates in that progenitive text. It’s a magic trick as old as Shakespeare himself, and one that’s delightfully onstage with the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Roguish and radiant

Directed by Matt Pfeiffer as part of PSF’s 2024 season, Merry Wives follows the roguish John Falstaff (Scott Greer)—originally a “Sir” but here a minor rock-and-roll frontman—as he courts two married women, Mrs. Page (Karen Peakes) and Mrs. Ford (Taysha Marie Canales), in a ploy to siphon off their wealth. The scene has been updated to the American middle class (courtesy of Pei Lee’s expertly fitted costumes and Paige Hathaway’s tactile taproom set), circa who knows precisely when: it’s less a specific moment, more as if touchstones of latter-half 20th-century Americana were thrown into a blender. The result is a supremely confident Merry Wives that wears its modernity with uncommon poise, anchored by joyous musical interludes and powerhouse comic turns.

Take Falstaff, for instance, who, in Greer’s veteran hands, practically radiates off the stage. Compared to the Henriad, the Falstaff of Merry Wives is generally held to be an inferior creation, but you wouldn’t know it from Greer’s cocksure performance, at times remarkably Wellesian in physical execution. He struts with greasy rockstar charm, equipped with an Elvis impersonator’s wig and cape and inflated ego to match, as ever an indefatigable arras of blustering conviction. The blocking seems to warp about him; he’s the center of gravity in any room he enters.

The birth of the modern sex comedy

Of course, any Falstaff is only as strong as his foils, and here he has foils aplenty, particularly in Akeem Davis’s revelatory Mr. Ford. Where Falstaff almost glides with his surety, Ford bursts with insecurity at the seams of his argyle sweater, possessed of the singular fear of his wife’s cuckoldry and animated to near paroxysms. His wife, it should be noted, only entertains Falstaff’s advances as part of a reverse scheme to catch him in his own buffoonery, but given the convolutions of the comic plot—contorted in typically Shakespearean fashion—that’s for us to know, and Ford to find out. In the meantime, he does what any rational man would and adopts a disguise to investigate his wife’s fidelity; the absurdity of his subsequent torment, played by Davis with bravura comic pain, suggests the darkly hilarious twists of a modern sex comedy. This is where the play’s adaptive sleight-of-hand is at its finest: it only feels like a scene from a modern sex comedy, we realize, because Shakespeare did it first.

As the titular merry wives, Peakes and Canales also find a rich interplay. They luxuriate in Falstaff’s foolhardiness and their husbands’ irascibility, book club moms bestowed with Shakespearean trickster spirit. Peakes’s recitation of Falstaff’s initial letter, in particular, does more to lock the play into its given moment than all the considerable scenery combined.

B-plot hijinks

The B-plot, meanwhile, noses around this central narrative thrust. It’s somewhat more calculated than the main event—x number of suitors seek young Anne Page’s (CaSandra Kay) hand in marriage; Anne only has eyes for Fenton (Christian Tuffy), here the dreamy letter-jacketed boy next door—and so never quite reaches those jaunty heights, but it comes close for the assured swings of Anne’s potential partners. The flamboyantly French Dr. Caius (Ian Merrill Peakes) and the tightly buttoned-up Parson Hugh (Anthony Lawton) especially seem like they might be having more fun than anyone else on the stage: two clownish characters who ever-so-amusingly come to realize that they may be the butt of the joke.

14 cast members, in colorful eclectic costumes, line up joyously for a curtain call at the curving edge of the stage.
A triumphant close: the ensemble of ‘Merry Wives’ at PFS. (Photo by Kristy McKeever.)

Triumphant, in the end

Sure, there’s the occasional misstep to note, largely fueled by a tendency toward the overeager. The play takes a scene or two to settle into its rhythm, hand-waving through some spots of exposition—anxious, perhaps, to get to the good parts. Some of the tertiary bits, particularly those of Falstaff’s band (Devin Romero, Dan Hodge, and Eli Lynn), are too keen to declare themselves, as is the sporadic shift in lighting (designed by Alyssandra Docherty), which, in announcing itself mid-soliloquy, distracts from the actor caught in the light.

Any such misstep, however, is ultimately surmounted by the play’s triumphant close, an expertly paced finale buoyed by Pfeiffer’s assured directorial hand and the infectious pleasure of the musical numbers (precisely deployed throughout by composer Alex Bechtel). When the cast joins together in a final song, Falstaff strumming his guitar, it’s a celebration of all they’ve achieved, and rightfully so: a modern Shakespeare that brings him closer to us, us closer to him.

What, When, Where

The Merry Wives of Windsor. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Matt Pfeiffer. Through July 7, 2024, at the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival’s Labuda Center for the Performing Arts, 2755 Station Avenue, Center Valley. (610) 282-WILL or


The Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival box office is able to accommodate requests for a wheelchair or companion seat, space for a service animal, a large-print program, or a headset for the assisted listening system.

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