For greed, jealousy and lust tweaked by love, mistaken identities and some slapstick yuks right out of vaudeville, it doesn't get much better than William Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor.
That explains the peals of laughter from Annapolis' Summer Garden Theatre where Mistresses Page and Ford - two of Windsor's merriest wives - are at work humiliating jealous husbands and Sir John Falstaff, the fat, lecherous knight seeking to bed them both.
Summer Garden's Merry Wives, which is in production at the outdoor theater across from the City Dock, will not dazzle you with footwork, as group dynamics have pretty much been relegated to the "stand and deliver" school of Shakespearean stagecraft.
Nor have director Jerry Vess and his cast diverted the viewer's attention from the reality that the bard wrote awfully long this time out. Indeed, by the third time Master Ford goes to Falstaff in disguise for the purpose of exposing his wife's presumed (but nonexistent) treachery, you may find yourself paraphrasing Richard III as I did. ("An ending, an ending. My kingdom for an ending!")
Quibbles aside, here's betting you'll leave the theater tickled by most of what you've seen. For not only has the fellow from Stratford come through with indelible characters and a lot of laughs, this cast is adept enough to put them across with commendable flair. Two of the leads, in fact, produce the most fully realized comic performances since the local company began essaying the Shakespearean genre in 1998.
What a hilarious Falstaff we get from Kevin Wallace! The voice is dark, deep and sonorous. The shifty facial machinations are vivid, with the irony of a seductive mindset trapped in such an enormously rotund form captured to a tee. Recollections of this obese, "greasy knight" being stuffed into an enormous box to hide from Mistress Ford's jealous husband should keep you chortling for the rest of the summer.
The other star is Maud Gleason as Mistress Quickly, the servant/messenger whose convoluted intentions add so much delightful mayhem to the plot. With her facial, kinesthetic and verbal flags flying at full staff every step of the way, there's not a scene she's in that she doesn't steal.
The other comic standout among the women is Stephanie McLaughlin as Mistress Ford, the wife who exposes Falstaff and her jealous husband as the hot-blooded fools they are.
A bit less confident at this juncture, but still fun to watch, is Maureen Card as Mistress Page, the other merry wife who helps bring about Falstaff's antlered humiliation. Valerie Durham is attractive as the Page daughter, Anne, who engages in some subterfuge of her own to win her parents' approval of the man of her dreams.
Especially notable among the men are Daniel Lavanga as Ford, a helpless slave to jealous passion, and Greg Coale as Sir Hugh, the squeaky-voiced Welsh clergyman whose energy moves the opening scenes along so smartly.
Also quite funny - when his accent doesn't get the better of his diction - is Michael Rogers as the goofy French doctor whose broken English adds to the absurdity of his pursuit of Miss Anne Page.
Yes, the ensemble scenes look static and you may not arrive home until nearly midnight. But it is talent that rules in the end, and this cast displays more of that than most.
William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor plays at the Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre Thursday to Sunday at 8:30 p.m. through July 26. For tickets and information, call the Summer Garden box office at 410-268-9212.