“Merry Wives,” Jocelyn Bioh’s adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s least performed comedies, which officially opened Monday night, is supposedly set among African immigrants during present-day Harlem. But it actually takes place in Central Park among theater-deprived New Yorkers during the COVID-19 pandemic, at a time when so many in the audience see the production as a concrete step towards the much hoped-for total Reopening.
As such, any detailed critique feels besides the point. Bottom line: It is wonderful to be back at the Delacorte, even with the “Face Masks Required” signs posted all around.
Bioh understands this and turns the Bard’s revenge comedy into something warmer (and, at 110 minutes without an intermission, shorter), though keeping the main plots, subplots and convoluted comic busy-ness. Here, rotund hedonist Falstaff (a priceless Jacob Ming-Trent) still seeks to bed two wealthy married women in hopes that they’ll support him financially. But the explanation for his delusional efforts is one to which a New York audience in 2021 could almost relate:
“It’s been a long, hard year. Couldn’t go to the clubs. Couldn’t hit up the bars. Liquor stores was closed all early. Been stuck in the house just eating snacks. Watching Netflix. Bored outta my Got-damned mind! You know what I’m talking about. So can you blame me for tryna get with Madam Page and Madam Ford?”
Falstaff is such an ineffectual clown that he sends the identical love letter to both Madam Ekua Page (Pascale Armand, Tony nominee for “Eclipsed”) and Madam Nkechi Ford (Susan Kelechi Watson, best-known for her role as Beth Pearson in “This Is Us.”) They discover this quickly, and devise an elaborate scheme for Falstaff’s comeuppance. At the same time, Madam Page uses the opportunity to try to cure her husband, Mister Nduka Ford (Gbenga Akinnagbe, best-known for “The Wire” and “To Kill A Mockingbird”), of his unwarranted jealousy. Mister Ford disguises himself as Mr. Brook to catch his wife inflagrante — which leads to his comeuppance as well, then his apology, and her forgiveness.
In the other major plot, Madam Page’s daughter, Anne (Abena) is being wooed by three suitors — the dim-witted Slender (Joshua Echebiri) whom Anne’s father would like her to marry; the prim Dr. Caius (David Ryan Smith), whom Anne’s mother would like her to marry, and Fenton, whom Anne wants to marry. That Fenton is in this version a woman (portrayed by MaYaa Boateng) is one of several 21st century twists that replace the antiquated attitudes of the original.
It is arguably to alter some current-day antiquated attitudes that Saheem Ali, who is an immigrant from Kenya, has assembled a splendid cast whose 18 members are all of African descent, and that the production does what it can to immerse us in an African immigrant milieu while offering a lesson in inclusion. Before the play begins, Farai Malianga, a drummer from Zimbabwe, teaches us how to say hello in half a dozen African languages. And the characters are said to hail from Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Liberia. Bioh, the daughter of Ghanian immigrants, works in mention of such African cuisine as goat meat, plantains, tilapia and jollof rice. Dede Ayite’s costumes are an international mix of fashions.
And then there is Beowulf Boritt’s inspired set, meant to be a block on 116th Street (which opens up to show the interiors), featuring a Family Health of Harlem urgent care storefront plastered with a Black Lives Matter mural, a Senegalese braiding salon, Falstaff’s obscenely red-hued bachelor’s pad, and a laundromat where an outwitted Falstaff is sent to the cleaners and much of the comic business unfolds. It’s no spoiler to tell you that, at the happy conclusion of “Merry Wives,” when all have met and married their matches, the street disappears, and, yes, we are all under the stars in Central Park, together again.
At the Delacorte Theater through September 16
Running time: 110 minutes
By William Shakespeare
Adapted by Jocelyn Bioh
Directed by Saheem Ali
Cast: Abena, Shola Adewusi, Gbenga Akinnagbe, Pascale Armand, MaYaa Boateng, Phillip James Brannon, Brandon E. Burton, Joshua Echebiri, Branden Lindsay, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Jarvis D. Matthews, Jacob Ming-Trent, Jennifer Mogbock, Julian Rozzell Jr., Kyle Scatliffe, David Ryan Smith, and Susan Kelechi Watson
Scenic Design Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design Dede Ayite
Lighting Design Jiyoun Chang
Co-Sound Design Kai Harada & Palmer Hefferan
Hair, Wigs And Makeup Design Cookie Jordan
Composer Michael Thurber
Original Drum Compositions Farai Malianga
Fight Director Rocio Mendez
Choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie
Production Stage Manager Narda E. Alcorn
Line Producer Yuvika Tolani
Company Manager Liza Witmer
Production Manager Jason Paradine