A Family Show 

Shakespearean puppet spectacle: That's CalShakes' Merry Wives.

Queen Elizabeth loved Shakespeare's knight Falstaff so much that she demanded the playwright bring him back after his uncertain end at the close of Henry V. In fact, she demanded that Shakespeare write her a play in just two weeks, which might explain why the portly, hedonistic, and witty hero is more of the first two and less of the third in The Merry Wives of Windsor than he was in the history plays — qualities taken to their illogical extremes in the new CalShakes production, where Falstaff is a puppet roughly the size of a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, with a head like a stubbly hamburger bun.

CalShakes calls its madcap, Sesame Street-colored vision of Merry Wives "puppet-infused," but "overrun" is more accurate. Unlike 2004's Comedy of Errors, where the puppets were all humanoid and operated by actors whose faces were visible, here the wood-and-foam actors are more fanciful — and demanding. Ranging from massive (Falstaff, operated by three people) to tiny (whistling, fairy-like Robin), director Sean Daniels' offering is a smorgasbord of puppet technology. Rod puppets, marionettes, variations on the Japanese bunraku and kuruma ningyo forms; this show is a puppeteer's dream and a major spectacle.

Whether the play needs spectacle is debatable. Merry Wives is two stories: the rascally Falstaff wooing two ladies in hopes of securing their husbands' money, and the marrying-off of pretty young Anne Page, whose parents disagree about the most appropriate suitor. That second story is a little thin even when played by human actors. Having most of the relevant characters played by puppets with no facial variation makes them ciphers; only Mistress Quickly escapes by virtue of swishing hips and Lorna Howley's voice characterization. Some of the more successful puppet characters are the ones where we can see something of their operators' faces through the thin black bunraku-style veils, particularly Danny Scheie as Pistol and Dr. Caius — glimpsing Scheie's face when he says "gallimaufry" is priceless.

And the main story, that of Falstaff being bested by two virtuous women? There's not a better actor to put inside a nine-foot-tall Falstaff than Ron Campbell, but something is missing. Making the puppet Falstaff a halitotic and turd-producing caricature lessens his emotional dimensionality even as his physical dimensions are increased. If there's the slightest possibility that Falstaff's charm might win one of the wives, the story's more interesting, but this puppet wasn't built for charm, it was built to continue one long fat joke — in the text, Falstaff is so "full of grease" that he would "melt in Hell." And because he's a puppet, it's hard to take his trespasses all that seriously, making the ladies' last punishment seem unneccessarily mean-spirited.

Which isn't to say it's not fun overall — it is. The human actors fare well here, maybe better than they did in Comedy. Amping up their physicality, some delightful things happen — Delia MacDougall in a whirling "work that skirt" turn; Catherine Castellanos breaking out her comic gifts as Mistress Page; Liam Vincent being perhaps the one sane character (human or puppet) on stage. With a hip twitch and a suspiciously puppety wide-legged stance, Anthony Fusco provides the play's honest emotion as the jealous, heartsick Master Ford.

The sound design is rife with jokes and cartoony music: Django Reinhardt, a brief hilarious Barry White moment, squeals, squeaks, and slams. Nothing beats puppet stage combat (pun intended). Adding a shark is very funny, and what with a confused dolphin recently swimming up the real-world Thames, not that far-fetched. It might not be exactly what the Queen ordered when she asked for a play with Falstaff in love, but it's clearly told, silly and colorful, and a good family show.


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