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For nine years now, the Arc Theatre has been producing free, outdoor Shakespeare on the lawn behind the Ridgeville Park main building at Ridge Avenue and Seward Street. These Shakespeare on the Ridge performances are consistently fun, always clever, professionally produced and eagerly awaited by south Evanston residents.
This year’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” show demonstrates exactly why we wait so eagerly – and why the rest of the City should catch on and join the fun.
For the first time, the series repeats itself. Having produced the same play for its second season in 2011, Arc returns to a play disparaged by critics – a play politically incorrect and at the same time disappointing to many, because of the fall of beloved character Falstaff from his linguistic perch to the object of ridicule and laughter reminiscent of Malvolio of “Twelfth Night.”
Audiences generally do not not care, nor should they here. Uproarious, zany fun awaits. And Falstaff, already well established as the brilliant scoundrel who seems to simultaneously push and hold back young Prince Hal in both “Henry IV” plays, can take it. He is larger than life, resilient, and as portrayed here by Andrew Gallant, seemingly self-aware of his own current ridiculousness.
As with all Arc Shakespeare works, the play has been edited and characters combined. With a cast size of 22 speaking characters in the text, the little hill in Ridgeville Park could not take a full cast even if enough actors were available. Combined and edited into 12 – a large cast by Arc standards anyway – the play loses none of its outrageous magic.
The Merry Wives themselves are excellent. Megan Delay’s exuberant Mistress Page bounces around the stage with a mischievous glint in her eye. Her character could easily control a bumbling Falstaff, but also reveals her callousness by promoting the pompous windbag Dr. Caius as a match for her daughter.
Pamela Mae Davis, who appeared in the first Shakespeare on the Ridge performance in 2010, returns as Mistress Ford. She is brilliant as the more circumspect and truly astonished of Falstaff’s amorous targets.
There is no substitute for the immediacy of theater, especially with such talented actors as these. Planes overhead, the occasional fireworks, a siren or two, all bring home the beauty and in the moment nature of an outdoor play, and Arc is a master of the craft and venue.
Teddy Boone and Natalie Sallee, who have been with Arc from the start, return to the stage this year, with Mr. Boone flexing his comedic chops once more as the paranoid buffoon Master Ford. He slips easily into cowboy mode as Ford in disguise with hilarious results.
Ms. Sallee takes on Mistress Quickly, shifting from cold plotter to seductress with ease. Falstaff should simply woo her, we all know.
But that would miss the real point here, which is jumbled, merry fun. Newcomer Ryan Kordana is wonderful as the reluctant wooer Slender, awkward as a teenager and clearly not up to the task. Andrew Tardif portrays the pompous French doctor perfectly, the accent alone hilarious.
A special nod to David Kaplinsky, who is becoming an Evanston outdoor Shakespeare regular, He wrote and performed the music, in the background on unaccompanied guitar, but also adds his own performance as an observer. Facial expressions tell much.
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” runs through Aug. 12 on Saturday and Sunday evenings in Ridgeville Park. Those who have not made an Arc performance need to go. Those who know the group will not be disappointed.