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Review: 'Merry Wives' gets itself a proper home outside

Watching Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks perform "The Merry Wives of Windsor," you get the sense of what it must have been like to see the original productions in William Shakespeare's time.

Now in its seventh season, the company performs outdoors in three city parks using a minimum of scenery and props and costuming that simultaneously represents all periods and none. Shows are done as matinees without lighting, as were the first productions.

There's an ad hoc feel to the proceedings, as performers bring gusto and commitment to working in the out of doors. There's an extra effort to be heard without amplification and to connect with casual theatergoers who might have stumbled upon the production on their way to a trail walk.

Director Tommy Costello has pared the play to one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission and simplified the action. Emphasis is on comedy and clarity of plot to engage those for whom the language of an Elizabethan playwright is a new experience.

To accommodate the demands of the outdoors, performances are deliberately broad, the actors are sufficiently loud and pacing is swift and seamless.

Performances begin with cellist Rachel Smith's music drawing onlookers. Assistant director Alan Irvine soon arrives to narrate a summary of "The Merry Wives of Windsor" plot. Onlookers then move to reassemble at a second clearing where most of the play takes place.

"The Merry Wives of Windsor" might not be Shakespeare's finest play. But its silly, farcical plot is well suited to casual audiences and newcomers. The basic action is the roguish Sir John Falstaff's attempts to seduce Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. Both of them are aware of his intentions and conspire to make his efforts unlikely and uncomfortable. As the wives, Elizabeth Chappel and Tonya Lynn provide lots of good-natured humor.

Some may be confused by the production's cross-gender casting, most notably Joanna Getting's appearance as Falstaff. She's full of swagger and bluster and fitted out with a full and deliberately false beard but far from masculine.

Jorge Azcarate fares better, appearing as the suspicious husband Master Ford and as an elderly Mistress Quickly.

As Fenton and Ann Page, Stanley Graham and Katherine Bodner form a sweet subplot of young lovers thwarting parental plans.

For those looking for a light romp through Shakespeare in an outdoor setting, "The Merry Wives of Windsor" may be just as you like it.

Additional Information:

'The Merry Wives of Windsor'

Produced by: Pittsburgh Shakespeare in the Parks

When and where:

• 2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, Allegheny Commons West Park, West North Avenue at Brighton Road, North Side

• 2 p.m. Sept. 17-18, Arsenal Park at 39th and Butler streets

• 2 p.m. Sept. 24-25 in Frick Park near the blue slide playground at Beechwood Boulevard and Nicholson Street, Squirrel Hill

Admission: Free

Details: Website

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