Sir John Falstaff has arrived in Windsor short of funds. The portly knight can’t pay the bill at the inn where he’s staying but he has a plan to fill his empty coffers by wooing two wealthy women.
“Now, the report goes she has all the rule of her husband’s purse,” Falstaff says of one of them.
Thus begins William Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a comedy about the thwarting of passion, the vagaries of jealousy and the course of true love.
Ten Bucks Theatre Company has been presenting “Shakespeare Under the Stars” since 2004 in Indian River Park in Brewer. This year’s show is one of its best ever due to excellent casting and director Julie Arnold Lisnet’s broad comedic strokes, especially in the fast-paced second act.
Ben Layman’s Falstaff, a drinking buddy and traveling companion of Prince Hal in “Henry IV,” is a buffoon, but a charming oaf who appreciates a good joke even when he’s the brunt of it. The well-known local actor, most recently seen in Penobscot Theatre Company’s “The Full Monty,” embraces all of Falstaff’s flaws but also infuses the character with such humanity that it is impossible not to love him.
The women Falstaff attempts to woo ever so clumsily are portrayed by Aimee Gerow and Deb Elz Hammond. Both are delightful as the women who pretend to return the knight’s affections as part of their plot to shame him for daring to think he might tempt them from their husbands.
Hammond, the drama teacher at Bangor High School, returns to stage as Mistress Ford after far too long an absence. Long-time theatergoers may remember her searing performance as Harper, the pill-popping Mormon wife, in Penobscot Theatre Company’s productions of “Angels in America” in in 1998 and 1999.
Gerow as Mistress Page and Hammond work beautifully together. They convince the audience their characters have been friends since childhood and scheming together since junior high. Shakespeare wrote women with great intelligence, especially in his comedies. These actresses know their characters are the smartest in the show. That gives their portrayals more depth than less experienced and talented actresses might have mustered.
As Master Ford, Ron Lisnet gives one of his best performances. The character’s determination to prove his wife’s infidelity just helps Falstaff fill his purse. Lisnet’s portrayal of the foolish husband hits all the right comedic notes. His scenes with Layman are especially pleasing.
New and welcome additions to Ten Bucks stable of actors are University of Maine students Nathan Reeves as Slender and Reed Davis as Fenton, who both seek the hand of Natalie Listnet as Anne Page, daughter of Mistress and Master Page. Reeves takes the Bard’s foppish suitor to an outlandish level reminiscent of Bob Libbey’s performances in PTC’s Shakespeare productions on the waterfront in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Reeves is outrageously and physically funny. Davis gives a sincere portrayal of a young man struck by Cupid’s arrow while seeking a wealthy bride. He makes a charming Romeo.
Ryan George Collins as Sir Hugh Evans and Nathan Roach as Dr. Caius, both sporting heavy accents, put the fun in their characters’ frantic frolic toward Caius’ capturing Anne Page and her father’s fortune Together with Reeves, they form an always amusing trio.
Other standouts in the cast include Gregory McElvaine as Master Page, Jennifer Snow as Mistress Quickly and Moira Beale as Hostess of the Garter.
The period costumes designed by Rebecca Wright suit every character beautifully and help define each one. Brent Hutchins’ set nestled in a hollow at the back of the park resembles a tavern in a travel ad for the British Isles.
Scholars may consider “Merry Wives of Windsor” one of Shakespeare’s lesser plays, but in the hands of director Arnold Lisnet and her cast, it is one of the best productions Ten Bucks has offered in the summer months. All involved have done the bard proud.
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” will be performed at 6 p.m. Wednesday on the Orono Village Green (located behind the Orono Public Library); at 6 p.m. Thursday and Friday and at 4 p.m. Sunday at Indian Trail Park in Brewer. It will move to Fort Knox State Park in Prospect at 6 p.m. Aug. 3 – 6. For information, call 884-1030 or visit www.tenbuckstheatre.org.