Western Setting for `Merry Wives' Detracts From Shakespeare's Text

THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR. Comedy by William Shakespeare. Directed by Daniel Sullivan. At the Delacorte Theatre through July 24.

THE proprietors of the New York Shakespeare Festival have hit on a neat pairing of plays for this summer's activities in the ongoing Shakespeare Marathon, which is about two-thirds of the way through its project of presenting all the Bard's plays.

The marathon's 25th installment, ``The Merry Wives of Windsor,'' runs through July 24 at the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, and next month ``The Two Gentlemen of Verona'' will make an appearance. This allows the festival's promotional posters to lure audiences with a single snappy phrase, ``Wives and Gents.''

The first of these attractions is certainly well timed. Perhaps anticipating the arrival of ``Maverick'' and ``Wyatt Earp'' on movie screens this season, director Daniel Sullivan has located his vision of ``Merry Wives'' in the gold-rush town of Windsor, Idaho, during the late 19th century. Signs for a saloon and an assay office dominate the stage, and some characters swagger around with six-guns dangling from their belts.

Such playfulness with time and place can add extra fun to a gregarious comedy like ``The Merry Wives,'' but it helps when the switches have some rationale beyond gimmickry for its own sake. While it's momentarily amusing to watch the ungainly Falstaff pursue his greedy campaign against Mistress Ford and Mistress Page with this particular setting in the background, the Old West ambience contributes nothing to our appreciation of Shakespeare's farce except a dose of novelty that quickly grows stale.

This wouldn't be a serious problem if Sullivan's production had other strong assets to sustain its interest. The staging has more energy than insight, however, falling back on staples of Falstaffian humor - broad verbal ironies, vulgar sight gags, and the like - instead of exploring Shakespeare's text with an eye for refreshing new approaches. The show only comes visually alive during a solid theatrical coup near the end, when the cemetery scene erupts like a combination of ``Night of the Living Dead'' and a Halloween party run amok. Other attempts at wild and crazy humor, such as the perenially popular laundry-basket jokes, fall fairly flat.

What saves the production from being altogether undistinguished is a set of likable performances. Chief among the affable players is Brian Murray as Falstaff, making up in expansiveness what he lacks in originality. Margaret Whitton and Tonya Pinkins are attractive as Mistresses Page and Ford, respectively, as is Andrea Martin as Mistress Quickly; and David Alan Grier, of the TV show ``In Living Color,'' is quite commanding as Master Frank Ford, who gives the evening some of its rare emotional punch.

John Lee Beatty designed the functional scenery, and Ann Hould-Ward created the western-style costumes. The production gains a good deal of oomph from period music played by an onstage brass quartet, supplemented by recorded music featuring composer Stanley Silverman on guitar and banjo.

A special nod goes to William Berloni, who trained the great-looking dog that goes through perfectly timed paces at key moments of the show. More imaginative touches like this would have made ``The Merry Wives'' a merrier evening all around.

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