Madam Nkechi Ford and Madam Ekua Page, the leading ladies of Merry Wives, an adaption of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor by Jocelyn Bioh, make for delightful companions for an evening as we slowly return to large scale live theater in New York City.
However, the show is entirely dependent on “the wives” for its energy and the comedy and joie de vivre start to fizzle when they are not on stage.
With an all-Black cast, set in contemporary Harlem in the African diasporic community, Madam Ford (Susan Kelechi Watson) and Madam Page (Pascale Armand) are smart, funny, playful, and inventive as they turn tables on the neighborhood player, horny, hidiot Falstaff (Jacob Ming-Trent), who was looking for some sugar mamas and thought he could scheme his way into the pants of both of these friends. They lay a trap for him and eventually for the jealous Mister Ford (Gbenga Akinnagbe) too who suddenly doubts his wife’s virtue.
With malevolent glee, these ladies revel in their revenge scheme. Watson and Armand make the most of being “bad” actors as Ford and Page, as they recite their self-scripted scenes to entrap Falstaff. Watson gets to play up a bit more physical comedy with her staged romance scenes with Ming-Trent. There’s even a fun dance interlude as she bops around to an infectiously catchy Nigerian pop song “Johnny” by Yemi Alade.
This might be the most fun they’ve had in a while. And possibly the same for much of the audience. This was my first show back in a large audience in 16 months.
Would that the men had as much pizzazz. Besides Falstaff, the men of this slice of Harlem are vague sketches. Even broadly drawn as the jealous one, the amiable one, the pastor, the uncertain suitor, the acting and direction don’t really go much further, leaving me more confused than I would have expected over character motivations. The men are meant to bear the brunt of the social critique, but the chaos, comedy, and calamity never seem to reach full throttle with them.
There’s a secondary plot where two men are vying for the affections of Madam Page’s daughter Anne–one a local doctor and the other the nephew of a family friend. But both fuzzy performances left me puzzled around what I was meant to be laughing at.
I struggled to get a complete read on Doctor Caius (David Ryan Smith) who was prone to anger, threatened violence (maybe impotently?), and played quite fey. I suspect we’re just to think him a bit ridiculous, but I didn’t love that the performance encouraged us to laugh at him being effeminate. The other suitor, Slender, just appears to be a bit of a simpleton. But I did not understand what he was afraid of (love, sex, romance, Anne, everything?) so nothing he did was funny.
The show is inclusive in other ways with a queer romance and body inclusive casting (though Falstaff still gets made fun of for his size).
With bright patterns, flowing fabrics, and the right amount of sparkle, Dede Ayite’s costumes felt perfectly suited to the dynamic Madams Page and Ford. Cookie Jordan’s wigs allowed for actors to double their characters with great precision.
Beowulf Boritt’s set of low-rise Harlem storefronts eventually gets pushed away for the show’s finale which takes place in the park. In that moment, the natural and artificial forest come together. With warm stage lights dappling the trees, it is a moment of simple stagecraft that takes the Delacorte’s best feature and puts it front and center. So even if the show has its ups and downs, it is a moment to remind us how sometimes just a little theatricality can go a long way.