"The Merry Wives of Windsor (Farms)"
Through June 27
270-3310 Let's say you like fart jokes, silly accents and half-naked fat men. Then I bet a Shakespeare play is about the last place you'd look for entertainment. Well, that's too bad because the first offering in this summer's Richmond Shakespeare Festival (RSF) may be just your cup of tea (or perhaps, your pitcher of Pabst). As realized by the Encore! Theatre Company, "The Merry Wives of Windsor (Farms)" is bawdy, naughty and sometimes downright raunchy. There are a fair number of laughs to be found amid the debauchery, but the play ultimately succeeds thanks to a wacky cast of characters that will have you smiling even when you aren't chuckling. Chief degenerate here is the legendary Sir John Falstaff (Chip Straley), lover of as much wine and as many women as he can get his hands on. Sir John sets the plot in motion by attempting to seduce both Mrs. Page (Samarra Green) and Mrs. Ford (Susan Sanford), the merry wives of the title. The women decide to have a little vengeful fun with Falstaff. Mrs. Ford sets up clandestine meetings with the lecher, conspiring to have them interrupted by Mrs. Page with warnings that her jealous husband, Mr. Ford (Glenn Evans), is about to arrive. When Mr. Ford actually finds out about the planned meetings, misunderstandings cascade one after another, building up a comic momentum that erupts in an antic and somewhat surreal finale. Director Foster Solomon uses every trick in the book, and writes some new ones, to keep this farce fresh. He includes hilarious references to "Sling Blade," Monty Python, and (I think) "La Cage aux Folles." Several actors play multiple roles and, in places where the switches are awkward, Solomon makes a joke out of it. And by changing the text in only minor ways, he pokes gentle fun at the residents of Windsor Farms without diverting the play from its rollicking course. While Straley and his imposing belly bring a certain depraved grandeur to the role of Falstaff, the standouts in this production are found in the supporting cast. Carl Martin generates laughs nonstop in the multiple roles of Pistol, the Host and a servant. Saddled with the task of playing both the nebbishy Slender and his ultracool rival, Fenton, Jerold Solomon gives each a distinctive nuttiness. And Tanya Tatum, known for her exceptional dramatic work at the Barksdale Theatre, shows that she is an adept comic actress as well. The reactions of her Nurse Quickly to Fenton's comings and goings are a hoot. Costume designer Randy Rose appears to do best with subtle delights like the perfect Richmond housewife outfit he devises for Mrs. Ford. That is, until the finale when he suits up an impressive array of woodland sprites. The play's minimal set is overshadowed by the stately eloquence of RSF's new home, Agecroft Hall. But the setting is nicely ironic. Both Shakespeare and Agecroft conjure up images of fine culture and good breeding. "Merry Wives" stands in wicked contrast to those images, a raucous celebration of the lustful and lascivious, good for many guilty