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updated: 7/18/2014 11:31 AM

Top-notch cast delights in First Folio's 'Merry Wives'

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  • Merry wives Lydia Berger Gray, left, and Patrice Egleston turn the tables on the rascal Sir John Falstaff (Brian McCartney) in First Folio Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

      Merry wives Lydia Berger Gray, left, and Patrice Egleston turn the tables on the rascal Sir John Falstaff (Brian McCartney) in First Folio Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
    Photo courtesy of First Folio Theatre

  • Merry wives Lydia Berger Gray, left, and Patrice Egleston turn the tables on the rascal Sir John Falstaff (Brian McCartney) in First Folio Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor."

      Merry wives Lydia Berger Gray, left, and Patrice Egleston turn the tables on the rascal Sir John Falstaff (Brian McCartney) in First Folio Theatre's production of William Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor."
    Photo courtesy of First Folio Theatre

  • Determined to test his wife's fidelity, a disguised Master Ford (Joe Foust, left) enlists the roguish Sir John Falstaff (Brian McCartney) to seduce her in William Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor," running through Aug. 10 at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook.

      Determined to test his wife's fidelity, a disguised Master Ford (Joe Foust, left) enlists the roguish Sir John Falstaff (Brian McCartney) to seduce her in William Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor," running through Aug. 10 at First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook.
    Photo courtesy of First Folio Theatre

  • A duel between Welsh clergyman Sir Hugh (Robert Allan Smith, left) and French physician Dr. Caius (Christian Gray, right) is averted by the quick thinking of an innkeeper (Steve Peebles, center) and the other sensible citizens of Windsor in Nick Sandy's production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" for First Folio Theatre.

      A duel between Welsh clergyman Sir Hugh (Robert Allan Smith, left) and French physician Dr. Caius (Christian Gray, right) is averted by the quick thinking of an innkeeper (Steve Peebles, center) and the other sensible citizens of Windsor in Nick Sandy's production of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" for First Folio Theatre.
    Photo courtesy of First Folio Theatre

  • Video: "Merry Wives" at First Folio

 
 

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.

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.

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