Jacob Ming-Trent and Susan Kelechi Watson in ‘Merry Wives.’ (Photo: Joan Marcus)
By Matthew Wexler
From the first moments of the Public Theater’s Free Shakespeare in the Park production of Merry Wives, you know you’re not in Windsor, England, the Bard’s original setting.
But it’s not just Beowulf Boritt’s present-day Harlem scenic design or Dede Ayite’s colorful, African print-inspired costumes. It is the call and response between actor and audience — a centuries-old, Sub-Saharan African gathering ritual — that lets you know that this jubilant Merry Wives, despite being a farce, will dive below the surface. Jocelyn Bioh’s adaptation interjects Shakespeare’s text with a tapestry of modern African dialects and cultural references, from Nigerian and Ghanaian to Senegalese and Liberian.
While those geographic details may be lost on some theatergoers, their resonance echoed through the Delacorte Theater at the performance I attended, where origin-specific expressions landed with appreciative familiarity in pockets of the audience. It’s a reminder that The Public’s anti-racism and cultural transformation plan extends beyond the artists and creators as the theatrical institution cultivates more diverse and inclusive audiences to experience its work.
Of course, all of the fun and frolic is there, too. From Jacob Ming-Trent’s boisterous Falstaff, here a “neighborhood trickster,” to the two leading ladies after which the play is named: Madam Nkechi Ford (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Madam Ekua Page (Pascale Armand). The gist of Shakespeare’s play remains intact. Falstaff, who intends to seduce two of the neighborhood’s most magnificent matrons, gets played by the very women he hopes to deceive, not once but three times.
Gbenga Akinnagbe as the jealous husband, Mister Nduka Ford, is a harmless foe, as are most of the men in Merry Wives. For an evening of theater under the stars with the sounds of New York City barreling in the distance, a lack of threatening antagonist is almost a relief given the looming pandemic, a weight miraculously lifted despite the humid air on a sticky August night. Instead, Bioh and director Saheem Ali find gravitas in the subplot, casting the Page’s daughter, Anne (Abena) and love interest Fenton (MaYaa Boateng) as a same-sex couple hoping to wed despite Anne’s parents’ efforts to pair her with bachelors more suited to their liking.
In most productions of The Merry Wives of Windsor, it is Falstaff who takes center stage. Shakespeare revisited the character several times throughout his canon, placing him in both Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2, and eulogized in Henry V. Falstaff is a delicate dance — a conduit for both buffoonery and empathy. Ming-Trent, whose Broadway credits include Hands on a Hardbody and Shrek The Musical, approaches Falstaff like the boisterous uncle everyone wants to share a beer with at the family barbecue. And though he commands the vast Delacorte stage, he also holds space for his fellow players. His Falstaff doesn’t necessarily dominate but rather seduces the viewer to revel in his foppery, leaving us with a candid reflection of Falstaff’s actions, at last saying, “See now how wit may be made a dummy when it is upon ill employment.”
A five-act play trimmed down to 110 minutes leaves us with a Merry Wives that swiftly clips along, culminating with that gorgeous set splitting apart to invite us into present-day Central Park awash in Jiyoun Chang’s other-worldly, saturated lighting. It is a joyful invitation to reconsider how and for whom we conceive theater. And for this moment in time — on the cusp of seven new plays opening on Broadway by Black playwrights — it is, indeed, a time to be merry.
The Delacorte Theater, Central Park
Through September 18
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.