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Falstaff in trouble

Falstaff in Iowa. Get it? The fat knight, venal as ever, finds himself knee-deep in corn, cheerleaders, chicken jokes, pigs, a butter cow, gay marriages and corn, did I mention corn?

There is a tradition that Shakespeare wrote "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at the request of Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see "Falstaff in love." What she got was no such thing, but something like "Falstaff in Love With Other Guys' Money Which He Plans to Get His Hanks On by Seducing Their Wives."

Alison Carey's rollicking "The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa," which opened on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Stage Saturday night, is not an adaptation in the way that "West Side Story" is an adaptation.

It is more of a lock-stock-and-barrel transplant, nurtured by brisk, farcical direction from the OSF's Christoper Liam Moore and broadly funny performances from some of the festival's top comic actors.

Like a time lord, Carey has plucked Shakespeare's characters out of the English countryside of four centuries ago. And since Shakespeare set "Merry Wives" in the boondocks of Windsor, far from the intrigues of London, she has plunked the action down in the boondocks of Iowa, far from the intrigues of Washington, D.C.

But those intrigues have penetrated this bucolic little circle of trust in the form of failed presidential candidate Sen. John Falstaff (David Kelly). The old scoundrel has lost badly in the Iowa caucuses and is too broke even to make it home.

Other pols might just hit up their PACs. Falstaff, being Falstaff, slicks back a dark mane that makes us thing of Mitt Romney on a bad hair day and decides to find some women who have access to their husbands' purse strings. His sights are set on the trifecta: sex, money, escape.

Now, with gay marriage legal in Iowa, and all these gay couples around, Falstaff figures there must be a few lesbians with buyer's remorse. And hey, he's willing to treat all women with equal opportunity inappropriateness.

But his campaign minions, Pistol and Nym, angry at being forced to take jobs at the Come On Inn, betray the old schemer to his intended victims, Margaret Page (Terri McMahon) and Alice Ford (Gina Daniels), and these very merry wives plot their revenge.

Meanwhile, in the Ann Page sub-plot, the Pages' daughter is the love interest of Dr. Kaya, a German doctor, Slender Shallow, a wood artisan, and Fenton, a cheerleader. Whom will she choose?

The big twist in all this is that among the traditional values the the townspeople are defending is gay marriage. It's not that most of the residents aren't straight. They are. They simply accept on an equal footing those who make up what Falstaff, in one of the play's bacon jokes, calls the GBLT community.

If histories and tragedies must put right some disturbance in the social or cosmic fabric, part of the job of a domestic comedy is to reaffirm the solidarity of a community that's been threatened. In Windsor community is based not on your sexuality but on being part of the larger group. It makes no difference to anybody that Margaret Page is married to the easy-going George Page (Ted Deasy), a farmer, and Alice Ford is married to the jealous Francie Ford (Robin Goodryn Nordli), a professional golfer.

A threat here is not somebody who loves differently but somebody who disrespects love.

Carey, a co-founder with OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch of Cornerstone Theatre in Los Angeles in 1986, has previously created a "Twelfth Night" in the don't ask don't tell days and a pre-legalized gay marriage "As You Like It." With all the tomfoolery, her respect for Shakespeare shines through. Far from a send-up, this "Merry Wives," like the original, is filled with affection for its milieu and its characters.

Rhetorically it straddles two worlds, using verse here and prose there, according to Shakespeare's scenes. The idiom is a mix of the contemporary with the Elizabethan thees and thous and anons.

Instead of a laundry basket, Falstaff winds up in a recycle bin. In his drag scene he's Miss Dubuque. Instead of bawdy Elizabethan puns, we got doubles entendres on corks, screws, vintages, little Dutch boys, holes and dikes. The jokes — some good, some groaners — come so fast the laughs sometimes get in the way.

This is a big, sprawling, uneven farce that would be a disaster if it were off a beat, but Moore has it on track. A heavy-handed message likewsie would ruin the rampant silliness. But the zeitgeist in Windsor is one of good cheer, with just that glimmer of a notion that respecting love is probably a good thing.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Margaret Page (Terri McMahon) and Alice Ford (Gina Daniels) compare text messages from Senator John Falstaff in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of 'he Very, Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa.' - Photo courtesy of Jenny Graham