Shakespeare in the Park makes hilarious return with ‘Merry Wives’

Nobody wants to hear about the pandemic at the theater, right? They’ve come to escape and forget about the news for a few hours. Or, I thought so anyway, until an inspired moment during Shakespeare in the Park’s al fresco “Merry Wives.”

“It’s been a hard year,” Johnny Falstaff, played by Jacob Ming-Trent, says in a hilarious speech to the audience. He complains about the tedium of being cooped up in his apartment for months on end watching Netflix. He’s bored and antsy.

So, Falstaff reasons, “Can you blame me for wanting to get with Madam Page and Madam Ford?”

1 hour, 50 minutes, no intermission. Delacorte Theater, 81 Central Park West; 212-967-7555, PublicTheater.org

Nope! It’s a brilliant line in writer Jocelyn Bioh’s clever adaptation of “Merry Wives,” which opened Monday night at the Delacorte Theater. The quip adds new motivation to a very tricky plot.

You see, Shakespeare’s comedy is about an overweight drunk trying to seduce two married women for kicks. Such behavior would normally be morally abhorrent, but these days the indiscretions are understandable.

Ming-Trent, who could probably make “King Lear” into a laugh riot, leads the audience in a chant: “We feel you, Falstaff!”

And, damn it, we do.

The entire play, directed by Saheem Ali, walks that shrewd line between total irreverence and respect for the Elizabethan source material. While much of it is still from Shakespeare’s quill, a Brit who died in the 17th century clearly did not, for example, watch Netflix or set his show in modern Harlem. He did not give his characters a rainbow of black backgrounds — Nigerian, Jamaican, Ghanaian — as Bioh has. The Bard wishes he’d had designer Dede Ayite’s fabulous, sexy costumes.

Pascale Armand, Julian Rozzell Jr., David Ryan Smith, Susan Kelechi Watson, and Phillip James Brannon star in "Merry Wives."
Pascale Armand (clockwise from left), Julian Rozzell Jr., David Ryan Smith, Phillip James Brannon and Susan Kelechi Watson star in “Merry Wives.”
Joan Marcus

Lest you think “Merry Wives” is a nonstop sex romp, get your mind out of the gutter. There are more innocent romances and scheming afoot too.

While the parents of young Anne Page (Abena) are looking to marry her off to a daft sweetheart named Slender, her heart goes out to Fenton, a woman, whom her father refuses to let her be with. (Shakespeare didn’t come up with this bit either).

Meanwhile, Falstaff sends identical love letters to Anne’s mom (Pascale Armand) and Madam Ford (Susan Kelechi Watson) in an attempt to lure them both — separately — into bed. They catch on, and turn the tables on the clown.

At the start of the show, the jokes are way overplayed. Double-entendres and asides, while clearly delivered, are interpreted with the aggression of someone taking a swing at Conor McGregor. Once the cast relaxes, however, the comedy rarely misfires.

Kelechi Watson and Armond are especially delicious as the plotting wives, who cackle in Madam Ford’s laundromat as they outwit the inflamed Falstaff. David Ryan Smith also makes a meal of Doctor Caius, a flamboyant French speaker who is constantly screaming and picking fights.

But “Merry Wives” belongs to the excellent Ming-Trent, who turns Falstaff into a character from “Seinfeld.” The Public Theater delayed opening night for two weeks while the actor recovered from an injury. He was worth waiting for.

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