'Merry Wives of Windsor' Romps In 1950s

'The Merry Wives of Windsor" is the Shakespeare play that no one remembers or even underlines. It's written in the shadow of a great war, but the mood is pure farce. It's as close as Shakespeare gets to a Doris Day movie.

That's why the Shakespeare Theatre's decision to set the play in an Adirondacks resort in the 1950s works so well. Falstaff was born to be a lounge lizard in a gold lam jacket. And the tart banter between the Mistresses Page, Quickly, and Ford fits a 1950s tableau like a chrome toaster.

Period details are one of the delights of this play, on stage in Washington through May 10. Look carefully: These merry wives don't spray, they sprinkle, their ironing. Costume designer Kaye Voyce did her homework in getting the look right. She couldn't buy the broad floral prints that were the spirit of the period, so she painted them on fabric.

Set designer James Kronzer chose a 1957 Buick Roadmaster, not a Cadillac, as the signature car of this production. "The lines were important to us. We didn't want a high-end Cadillac look. These are working people."

But designers insist that this adaptation isn't just an excuse to play with the sights and sounds of the '50s. "We didn't want the play to be about the '50s; we looked at the '50s as a way into the play," says Ms. Voyce.

Underneath the farce, there is a lot of stretching of limits going on. Woman are discovering a voice and a new scope for action. And there's a message for Washington audiences to lighten up: "Being in Washington, we live in a society that looks at human foibles and often sensationalizes them.... Shakespeare looks at [this behavior] and says how hilariously human it is. I think that's important," says director Daniel Fish.

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