How entertaining is First Folio Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor"? So entertaining that intermittent opening night showers couldn't dislodge audience members from their soggy seats on the grounds of the Mayslake Peabody Estate, home to First Folio's annual summer Shakespeare production for the last 17 years.
The crowd stayed put. The actors persevered. And the laughs kept coming, right up until a tornado warning forced producers to halt the performance.
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"The Merry Wives of Windsor"★ ★ ★
Location: Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067, firstfolio.org
Showtimes: 8:15 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday, through Aug. 10
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes, with intermission
Parking: Free lot adjacent to the estate
Rating: For most audiences
Returning a few days later to see the show in its entirety, my impression of director Nick Sandy's exuberant production was unchanged. Fair weather or foul, it's a delight.
Shakespeare's agreeably suburban comedy about class and fidelity centers on a pair of middle-class, middle-aged women who outsmart the knavish knight determined to seduce them to get his hands on their husbands' money.
The winningly flustered Mistress Ford (played by the spirited Lydia Berger Gray) and canny Mistress Page (the unflappable Patrice Egleston) are the titular wives, who prove too clever (and faithful) to be taken in by the corpulent, cocky, carousing knight, Sir John Falstaff. He's played with an air of authority and entitlement by Brian McCartney, who makes a most engaging rascal.
Flat broke, Falstaff arrives in the quiet burg of Windsor intending to hoodwink the provincials, who he (mistakenly) believes will succumb to his superior wiles and his superior wooing.
Insulted by his indecent proposals, Mistresses Ford and Page conspire to teach the knight a lesson. Their task is made more difficult by the need to keep their schemes from their husbands: the even-tempered, trusting Master Page (Victor Holstein) and the jealous Master Ford (a very funny Joe Foust), whose attempts to catch his wife and Falstaff in the act make for some terrifically madcap moments.
Assisting the wives is the amiably opportunistic Mistress Quickly (the sly, sassy Caroline Kingsley), who also serves as intermediary for the townsmen wooing young Anne Page (Meg Warner). Among Anne's unsuitable suitors is the simpering Slender, played by Michael Mulhearn. Also in pursuit is Caius, a fussy French doctor played by the nimble Christian Gray, whose prancing -- during an over-the-top duel with Robert Allan Smith's cheese-loving Welsh cleric Sir Hugh -- amuses almost as much as his silly French accent.
Also deserving mention is Steve Peebles as a clever innkeeper who resolves disputes through misdirection, and Alex Stein's bedraggled Nym, a slightly unhinged thief and former Falstaff crony, who has more honor in his lean frame than the portly Sir John.
Plenty of bluster and innuendo accompany the broadly comic performances, which suit perfectly the farcical tone established by Sandys.
"The Merry Wives of Windsor" is a jolly good time. But the play -- in which common sense and virtue trump social status -- is also an homage of sorts. It's a celebration of common men and women, whose capacity for forgiveness is reflected in the way they welcome the duly chastened Falstaff into the fold, with a hearty salute and a tankard of ale.
All's well that ends well indeed.