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'Merry Wives' a joyous indulgence in '80s pop culture

“The Merry Wives of Windsor,” which opened the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's summer season Friday, is pure fun — thanks to director Dawn Monique Williams’ unique take on Shakespeare’s middle class circus of love, jealousy and revenge, K. T. Vogt’s performance as Falstaff, and a joyous indulgence in '80s pop culture. From the first note to the last startling set, “Merry Wives” is outstanding.

Sir John Falstaff comes to Windsor looking for wine, women and wealth, seeking dual fulfillment in Mistresses Page (Vilma Silva) and Ford (Amy Newman). Red-haired Mistress Ford takes advantage of the situation to tease her husband’s (Rex Young) jealousy. Young Anne Page (Jamie Ann Romero) refuses her parents’ chosen suitors and finds her true love, Fenton (William DeMeritt). The suitors plead their case for Anne’s hand. There’s not a shrew among the women of “Merry Wives,” not a malicious word, nor a spiteful look, and Rex Young’s well-played jealousy is the only pitiful plight of the night, easily turned to love at the end.

OSF audiences have come to know and love Vogt over her nine seasons at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. As Falstaff, Vogt is an unexpected synthesis of Melissa McCarthy and Meatloaf: Her expressiveness, sense of timing and physical comedy are immensely entertaining. Also immense is Falstaff’s prominent codpiece that nearly steals the show. In other “Merry Wives” productions, Falstaff’s performance might be crude or lewd, drunken and filled with sexual innuendo. But perhaps because this Falstaff is female, instead there’s a sense of play, a mood of delight. Vogt’s Falstaff is a wag that knows few limits in his pursuit of the wives and we laugh, not at him but with him, enjoying his exaggerations, boasting and buffoonery. We know he’ll be caught up, and can’t wait to see how.

Vogt as Falstaff isn’t the only standout in “Merry Wives.” Merry wives Vilma Silva and Amy Newman are clever and mischievous, beautifully costumed and totally in sync as they scheme. Their husbands, played by Paul Juhn and Young, are perfect foils a la “I Love Lucy.” Jamie Ann Romero is lovely in corset and kitten heels, strong of will as Anne Page. Anne’s suitors are caricatures, upper-class exaggerations: the foppish Slender (Cristofer Jean) holds a large purple hat over his privates when he tries to stand up to Anne. Cristofer Jean is well matched by Jeremy Peter Johnson, who plays a Billy Idol-like French dandy, complete with stand-up blond hair, red tights showcasing splendid legs and a bow-tied codpiece.

Tony DeBruno, U. Jonathan Toppo and Howie Seago are favorite company members who always show a strong performance.

The '80s music and choreography that bed the performance are some of the best parts of “Merry Wives,” thanks to Williams’ collaboration with Composer and Sound Designer Paul James Prendergast and Choreographer Valerie Rachelle. The strong, confident beat of that era makes you want to get up and dance, and the romantic lyrics reinforce the narrative of the play, often in ridiculous, playful and hilarious ways.

“Merry Wives” opens with Jamie Ann Romero singing Whitney Houston’s melancholic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” as she longs for her lover. In moments, the piece turns into a full-on, full-cast performance that rocks the stage. Later, Falstaff appears in a mist, his rotundness clad in a floating, gold cape, singing “how can I get you alone?” from Celine Dion’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” as the merry wives read Falstaff’s missives and plot his denouement.

“Merry Wives” has the whole '80s scene: air guitar, raves complete with glow bracelets, oversized pink and teal flowers and that music: Eurythmics, Bell Biv DeVoe, Prince, Michael Jackson and more. Snatches of music weave through the play and stick in your head. Sometimes it’s a refrain, or just a chord, a line, or even a note that brings back the memory — think “Maniac” from “Flashdance” and recall those muscular thighs, the drive, the ambition. The scenes just make you laugh out loud.

And after “The Merry Wives of Windsor”? You won’t be able to sleep and you’ll stay up late to stream those 1980s rhythm and blues, hip hop, synth pop sounds, dancing to the beat.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” continues in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre through Oct. 13, with a sign interpreted production on July 21. The performance runs about three hours with one 15-minute intermission. For more information, including an interview with director Dawn Monique Williams, visit www.OSFAshland.org.

— Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

Mistress Ford and Mistress Page (Amy Newman, left, and Vilma Silva, right) are less than thrilled about the overtures Falstaff (K. T. Vogt, center) is making toward them. [OSF photo by Jenny Graham]