Review: Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives,’ Now in South Harlem

Review: Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives,’ Now in South Harlem
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Review: Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives,’ Now in South Harlem

Review: Shakespeare’s ‘Merry Wives,’ Now in South Harlem

Who wouldn’t need a warm welcome back to the live theater like the one offered on those late summer evenings in Central Park? There, Jocelyn Bioh’s “Merry Wives,” a cheerful adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Merry Wives of Windsor” set in an African diasporic community in Harlem, does all a comedy can do to embrace all comers.

First, director Saheem Ali, born in Kenya, enthusiastically greets the speakers at the Delacorte Theater. Next, Farai Malianga, a drummer from Zimbabwe, leads the audience in a chorus of calls and responses of African vernacular greetings: “Asé” (Nigeria), “Yebo” (South Africa) and “Wau-Wau” (Senegal ) among them. By the time the play proper begins, we are all innocent cultural appropriators.

Or should I say inappropriate play? Purists who yearn for the original text (circa 1597) – and perhaps the world it existed in – will find plenty of things that will get their goat in Bioh’s metamorphosis, including the Roast Goat. She cut the number of characters by almost half and the runtime by more than a third. (Ali’s production is 110 quick minutes, with no intermission.) Much of Shakespeare’s pun, incomprehensible without an Elizabethan thesaurus, has been swept away by words like “master” and “mistress” and their buzzkill implications.

Fortunately, Bioh didn’t replace them with awakened lectures. She said she wanted a “Happy Wives” that her Ghanaian family could enjoy, and reaching the goal didn’t rule out the rest of us. Or, rather, she made us all part of the family, perhaps erasing part of Shakespeare’s worldview in the process, but highlighting the human qualities we know from our own households – or, if not, of popular culture.

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So, Jacob Ming-Trent, as an idle, hungry Falstaff, hilariously combines in a larger-than-life portrait your drunk uncle, a horndog Redd Foxx, and a certain Barry White. The identical mash letters he writes to the two straight wives of the title – pie Madame Ekua Page (Pascale Armand) and glamorous Madame Nkechi Ford (Susan Kelechi Watson) – are instantly familiar like the delusions of a sitcom character who , thinking it’s a trap, he’s about to be caught.

That the letters are discovered as Madame Page gets her hair done at a Senegalese braiding salon on 116th Street speaks volumes about the good humor of the production. The living room is part of Beowulf Boritt’s elaborate transformation puzzle, which also includes an emergency care clinic run by Dr Caius (David Ryan Smith) and Mama Quickly (Shola Adewusi), and a laundromat, cleverly called the Windsor , where the women’s revenge on Falstaff is finally achieved amid baskets of “dirty laundry”.

If the production – including Dede Ayite’s costumes and Cookie Jordan’s wigs – looks particularly grandiose, that’s part of the welcome, too. The Public Theater was of course not able to stage Shakespeare in the Park last year, and for 2021 have decided to make the most of their resources by combining their two usual productions into one. There were also two material choices: a great comedy when we really needed it after a dark little year, but also a play celebrating black life in America, when we really needed it too.

Not just black life, however. The celebration is universal, which does not always square with Shakespeare’s pettiness. The casually misogynistic references were therefore removed, so that a character, Anne – the married daughter of Madame Page and her husband, Kwame (Kyle Scatliffe) – would speak “sweet-sweet like a woman”, not “little one.” ” like a . The very abuse of a fictitious woman has been reversed: when Falstaff, in the second of his three comeuppances, is beaten “most pitifully” while wearing a ridiculous disguise, it is like the old man from Benin ( “dressed like an old black Dumbledore”) instead of Shakespeare’s old wife from Brentford. And Bioh made several adjustments to embrace homosexuality where the original simply used it for humor.

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These substitutions don’t seem so much politically correct as they are heartily embracing. Anne’s three suitors still include weak Slender (Joshua Echebiri) and downright lousy Dr. Caius. But the third, Fenton, is now a pure-hearted woman (MaYaa Boateng) instead of a man in search of fortune. That Anne’s parents don’t fuss about Fenton’s sex (their objections are mostly financial) may seem somewhat utopian, but Anne’s definite preference for her, as expressed in a performance by the actress Abena who stands out even in this excellent overall ensemble. , is indisputable.

The rejected suitors get off lightly here; in a change from the original, the two end up loving the match they’re trapped in when they can’t have Anne. Unfortunately, the Falstaff part of the story is not, as it should be, more dangerous. With his long shorts and VR glasses, chatting with audiences about a past pandemic watching Netflix and eating snacks, Ming-Trent’s Falstaff is more of a clown than a threat. As Bioh wrote the character, we are forced to conclude that his desire is ludicrous because, in an otherwise positive production for the body, he is housed in a figure “about two meters wide”.

If this puts too much emphasis on the character’s outward traits, missing out on the opportunity to use her story to examine men’s inner fragility, Bioh’s storyline – and Ali’s flexible leadership – balances that out in the story. of Mrs. Ford’s husband, who suffers from jealous fear that his wife is unfaithful. In conventional production, Ford is laughable; here, Gbenga Akinnagbe makes human misery very real. His relief, then, when his wife forgives him after first torturing him with false evidence, is therefore a more moving moment than usual.

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Forgiveness, instead of revenge, is the unexpected theme of the evening. And not just for the characters. Towards the end, in an open-air twist, Boritt’s decor slips and offers us all a magical view of Central Park, lit as if it were a paradise playground by Jiyoun Chang. Can we hope that this marks the start of a happier time in our city and country?

Bioh suggests it. It’s not just Falstaff that she has in mind when she demonstrates, in this healing adaptation, that even the worst old outcasts can receive a lesson and be welcomed back into the family. After all, whether it’s Ghana or Zimbabwe or Brooklyn or Stratford-upon-Avon, we are all, if you look back enough, an African diasporic community.

Happy wives
Until September 18 at the Delacorte Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Duration: 1 hour 50 minutes.

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