According to literary lore, Queen Elizabeth was so delighted with Shakespeare's creation of Sir John Falstaff in the history plays, she requested a play showing the ribald, fat knight in love.
What she got in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a comedy in which Falstaff is teased, taunted and mildly tortured at the hands of the two Windsor housewives he brazenly attempts to woo simultaneously.
Falstaff is forced to hide in a basket of dirty laundry, then to dress as an old witch. Finally, he's poked, pinched and burned with tapers by villagers posing as fairies and sprites.
You gotta feel sorry for the big guy.
However, as portrayed by Lewis Shaw in director Drew Kahl's mildly diverting Baltimore Shakespeare Festival production, Falstaff is too lackluster to earn much in the way of pity - or laughs.
Although costume designer Barbara N. Kahl gussies Shaw up in a convincing fat suit, the character also needs to be larger than life, in metaphorical terms. Shaw does pull off some amusing sight gags related to his enhanced girth. When one of the wives knocks him over, he topples back and forth like a roly-poly toy. And using a laundry basket that's too small to conceal him is an inspired choice; the knight's page, Robin, has to sit on top to keep the laundry and Falstaff from spilling out.
But if Shaw is unable to wring sufficient humor out of Falstaff's dialogue, the production does boast several other performances that hit comic pay dirt. As Mistress Ford, the craftier of the two Windsor wives, Allison Lamb displays the quick wit of a woman who's more than a match for Falstaff and for her jealous husband as well. Lamb's eyes flash with mischief when Mistress Ford schemes to teach a lesson to Falstaff and to her mistrustful husband.
As her husband, Bruce R. Nelson gets to play a role-within-a-role when Master Ford pretends to be a man named Brook, who also has designs on Mistress Ford. With a hunched back, stiff leg and withered hand, Nelson's Brook is a cartoon Richard III, made all the funnier when he prematurely abandons his infirmities and nearly gets found out. Nelson also adopts a loony accent that turns the phrases, "Bless you, sir" and "marriage vow" into "Bless you, sore" and "marriage wow" (in both cases, subliminally suggesting his real meaning).
As Mistress Ford's sidekick, Mistress Page, lean, jittery, blond-ringleted Sarah J. Wiggin makes an enthusiastic partner in crime. And Gregory Stuart is a pure Parisian peacock as the preening French doctor who is one of three suitors vying for the hand of Mistress Page's daughter.
More Elizabethan sitcom than a work of great literature, The Merry Wives of Windsor isn't one of Shakespeare's best plays, and this rather off-kilter production doesn't elevate its status. Still, it's a Shakespearean sitcom, and sitting in the Evergreen House meadow, watching the high - and low - jinks unfold on designer Robert Marietta's thatch-roofed cottage set has an undeniable charm.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Where: Baltimore Shakespeare Festival at Evergreen House meadow, 4545 N. Charles St.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Through July 24