Uh-one, uh-two ...” Not Lawrence Welk but Sir John Falstaff—or is that Geoffrey Pond of Subterranean Shakespeare in the outlandish tie and suspenders?—gives the downbeat, and accompanied by the unlikely tinkle of a toy piano, launches into “This Guy’s in Love With You,” with female chorus, to open Subterranean Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor in “new vaudeville” style, as directed by Katya Rivera, at the Berkeley Art Center in Live Oak Park.
“If not, I’ll just ... die!” Mopping his visage with handkerchief, Sir John profusely thanks the audience, and then the fun begins, with perhaps Shakespeare’s most clown-heavy comedy sporting a gaggle of tackily accoutered funnymen to send up romance while unwittingly fostering it.
Then the intrepid crew takes the low road with this least-honored of The Bard’s comedies, full of slapstick and silliness but following its delectible flights of language rather than the set-up of story and plot, letting that— characterization and the rest—issue from the intoxicating idiom as it spouts forth.
There are dangers in doing it this way. The play, even judiciously cut as it is, runs o’er hill and dale, and it’s easy to lose the dynamics, accent and tone of the exquisite verbal flow—and once that’s gone, the rest follows suit. “It’s a real potpourri,” Pond said later, out of character but fondling his tie, “We wanted to play it quick.”
The excellent duo sitting in as orchestra—Hal Hughes and Kevin Moore on aforesaid toy ivories, fiddle, kazoo, slide and train whistle and on guitars—adds a lot of tone and accent to the relentless comic outpourings.
The ladies—Alexaendrai Bond and Rebecca Pingee as Mistresses Page and Ford—play it up as they trick Sir John into a nighttime tryst, sporting antlers, to take it out of him, as a band of mock witches and warlocks proceeds to do on cue.
“Have you no suit against my knight, my guest cavaliero?” The troupe resembles a greasy print of lost Picasso saltimbanques in Bessie Delucchi’s’s costume buffoonery. Maggie Tenenbaum, in pink fishnets and green top with garish miniature parasol and squeaky voice, is Anne Page, courted by ardent Fenton (Caspar Brun) on a scooter, the true love interest, the one that gets away. She doubles in a rakish hat, assisting Mistress Quickly (Jean Forsman) in keeping the pub in an uproar of wine-bibbers and sack topers.
“Methinks you speak preposterously, sir.” The revved-up braggadocio collides with trickery to produce nothing but folly by friction, whether with Falstaff hid among the linens in a laundry basket or Dr. Caius (Keith Jefferds) and Evans (Jim Colgan) tiptoeing into a fencing match. “Well, thou art a Hector of grief, my boy.” Stuart Hall as the nose-y Ford, disguised as Brook, and slicked-up Catz Forsman as Page are scheming husbands, Paul Shepard and Joseph Talley as Shallow and Slender are the old paying insipid court to the young, and Scott Lettieri essays a few of Falstaff’s hapless routines.
With the gulling of Sir John, and a marriage (though not the one contracted) to certify it comic, the play ends with a touch of that bittersweet air that drifts above the verbal gales of Shakespeare’s choicest drolleries: “What cannot be eschewed, must be embraced.”
MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at the Berkeley Art Center, 1275 Walnut St. $12-$17. 276-3871.