New York City is getting another shot this summer with Free Shakespeare in the Park’s happy Happy wives, playwright Jocelyn Bioh’s adorable adaptation of Bard’s play The Merry Wives of Windsor starring WatchmenJacob Ming-Trent as that great rotund Falstaff creation.
Briefly delayed by injuries and Covid, Happy wives it opens tonight as a very welcome escape and, with the required vaccinations, as safely as possible, from the ills of the world. With an update on a contemporary South Harlem populated with a splendid mix of West African immigrant characters, Happy wives It enhances the classic farce with updated references (including, of course, Covid), the occasional short snippet of R&B songs, and a same-sex romance that seems completely at home on stage.
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If the no-intermission production, directed by Saheem Ali, doesn’t reach the joyous heights of Kwame Kwei-Armah and similarly updated Shaina Taub Twelfth nightIt’s only because that wonderful 2018 adaptation in the park set a standard that could be imposed on Central Park’s outdoor Delacorte Theater for some time to come.
A perfectly larger-than-life Ming-Trent leads a fantastic, all-black cast that includes Shola Adewusi, Gbenga Akinnagbe and, as the merry wives, scene robbers Pascale Armand and Susan Kelechi Watson. They all play in Beowulf Boritt’s charming set of three Harlem storefronts across the street, each rotating to serve as exteriors and interiors, conveying the sense of a complete community in a microcosm. When the cityscape gives way to a late game park scene, the stage opens up to make great use of Delacorte’s own natural surroundings.
The bones of Shakespeare’s play remain, though they develop a bit with more than a bit of explicit contemporary: the self-satisfied buffoon Falstaff sends identical “love” letters to two married women, Madam Page de Armand and Madam. Watson’s Ford, prompting these perky wives to plot an elaborate and absurd revenge that repeatedly causes Falstaff to be humiliated or worse. Good-hearted Mama Quickly (Shola Adewusi) helps carry out the plan, a schemer who rivals even the devious Falstaff.
There’s also a jealous husband (Akinnagbe), a trusting husband (Kyle Scatliffe), a fearful preacher at odds with a boastful doctor (Phillip James Brannon, David Ryan Smith, respectively), and a neighborhood elder (Julian Rozzell Jr.) who wants marrying his shy nephew (Joshua Echebiri) to the daughter (Abena) of one of the merry wives.
Unfortunately for the nephew anyway, that daughter, Anne Page, only has eyes for the serious and equally in love young Fenton, here played by MaYaa Boateng and who gives the production a same-sex touch that works perfectly. . Anne’s father’s opposition to her relationship with Fenton takes on additional repercussions.
This is still a Shakespearean comedy, well that ends well, and it all ends especially well with a visually magnificent scene involving spirits in African costumes (designed by Dede Ayite) and a light display (designed by Jiyoun Chang). that beautifies Central Park. surroundings with the vitality that this city has missed so much.
Free Shakespeare in the Park Happy wives opens at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park tonight and runs through September 18.