Author: Clay Bonnyman Evans

‘Shakespeare’s Sitcom’

“Few of Shakespeare’s plays have occasioned more … weeping and wailing and gnashing of scholarly teeth than The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a scholar wrote in 1941, listing among the play’s deficiencies the “inferior quality of the comedy” and the “degradation of Falstaff,” a serious character plucked from the Henry IV cycle.

In the play, a comic Falstaff attempts to seduce the wives of two merchants in a scheme to repair his finances. In the end, the wives outwit him, conjuring up a series of tricks to end the attempted grift, with help from their husbands and friends.

Critics may deem Merry Wives one of the Bard’s fluffiest works, but for audiences weaned on the broad humor of classic TV sitcoms, its two-dimensional characters — including a buffoonish Falstaff—slapstick humor and bawdy innuendo make it one of the most hilarious and beloved of the canon.

So, when it came time to stage Merry Wives for the first time since 2014, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival decided to lean into the sitcom theme.

“We want this to feel like the 1970s sitcom we’ve never seen before, a joy bomb,” says director Kevin Rich.

Rich says the production team identified numerous apt character comparisons, including: Mistress Quickly as Chrissy from Three’s Company; two of the merry wives as Laverne & Shirley; a version of MASH’s Father Mulcahy; and a “Falstaff who feels a bit like an over-the-hill Fonzie, with his little gang of misfits as the Sweathogs” from Welcome Back, Kotter.

 “It’s a comedy about middle-class people, not dukes and royals, and it’s a gas,” says Producing Artistic Director Tim Orr. “The production meetings have been hilarious, riffing on everything from Bewitched to The Jeffersons to That ‘70s Show.”

The sets, costumes, musical “stings,” and colors on display in the newly renovated Roe Green Theatre will summon the Golden Era of American sitcoms, Rich says.

“There will be a lot of little Easter eggs,” he says.

Rich also is intrigued by the possibility that Shakespeare’s turn as an actor in a broad 1598 Ben Jonson comedy, Every Man in His Humour, may have influenced him to try his hand at “citizen comedy,” a popular Elizabethan form not unlike the contemporary sitcom.

Though many scholars believe Merry Wives was penned before Jonson’s play, that’s not certain. Rich sees numerous parallels between the two plays, including a guller being gulled, a young lady pursued by unfit suitors and a wildly jealous husband, all of which “plays really well on stage.”

“Critics may say it’s hastily written,” he says, “but audiences love it,”

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival presents “The Merry Wives of Windsor” in the Roe Green Theatre from July 6 to Aug. 11, 2024.