It’s about time. The wait for live, in-person Shakespeare in the Park to return to the beloved Delacorte Theater has been long enough, but there’s an even more delayed event dominating the exuberant and raucous Merry Wives: the inevitable rise of Jacob Ming-Trent, a stalwart Shakespearean actor who’s been stealing scenes around New York City for over a decade without landing a starring role worthy of this talents.
Each of Ming-Trent’s fresh, funny turns with Theater for a New Audience and the Public—Launcelot Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice, Snout in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night—were memorable, standout supporting performances. So it’s a joy to see Ming-Trent’s Falstaff fully center-stage, deliciously self-obsessed and charmingly awful as he sets about wooing two married women at once, Madam Page (Pascale Armand) and Madam Ford (Susan Kelechi Watson). When he bursts into his elicit rendezvous with Madam Ford crooning a falsetto-laced, riff-drizzled anthem of love, little knowing that the two wives are plotting his downfall, it’s an ecstatic display of comprehensive cockiness. Ming-Trent coaxes clarity of meaning out of Shakespearean verse as if he’s the first to discover it there.
If there’s another especially bright light among this shimmery ensemble of cast and creatives, it’s Jocelyn Bioh, the playwright who adapted William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor into a brisker, bolder, more boisterous Merry Wives. Bioh, best known for her riveting School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play, transports Shakespeare’s comedy to a post-pandemic community of African immigrants in Harlem. Bioh’s edits, which often elide her language with Shakespeare’s so smoothly that it’s hard to tell them apart, integrate the newly conceived time and place and culture with both fidelity to the text and conviction in making the story work for the community whose voices she seeks to amplify.
This replanting of Shakespeare’s text is no gimmick, and the production, staged with a vibrant attention to detail by the Public’s associate artistic director Saheem Ali, shrewdly balances its two authors’ contributions. The complex relationship between African-born and native-born black New Yorkers hovers around Bioh’s world, too, suggesting cultural tensions that complicate the glee with which the Fords and Pages set about enacting Falstaff’s humiliation.
Bioh’s adaptation is also a reminder that Shakespeare wanted audiences to get his jokes, and she doesn’t hesitate to swap out lines that will make the intent come across more precisely. In the Bard’s original, Falstaff plots to woo both Mistress Ford and Mistress Page in order to get at their pocketbooks, declaring, in a nautical mercantile metaphor, “They shall be exchequers to me.” Here, “exchequers” becomes “sugar mamas.” Message received loud and clear.
Equally seamless and effective is the queering of the play’s young lovers, Anne Page (Abena) and Fenton (MaYaa Boateng). Anne’s parents (Kyle Scatliffe and Pascale Armand) each have a different husband in mind for their daughter: the stammeringly shy Slender (Joshua Echebiri) and the mad—and here somewhat exhaustingly caricaturish—Doctor Caius (David Ryan Smith). But Anne prefers the unmonied Fenton, and Bioh’s keen choice to make Fenton a woman reframes the Pages’ resistance to their daughter’s own desire and refocuses the play on the young couple’s clear-eyed heroism in the midst of prejudice and folly. They see their way to what they want more clearly and unwaveringly than their irrational elders.
At the end of Shakespeare’s play, the community stages a sort of pageant to take their final revenge on Falstaff while disguised as attacking spirits. Bioh and Ali transform the scene into a collage that simultaneously draws on African dress and dance and ritual, led by the stirring drumming of composer Farai Malianga; fulfills its dramatic function; and features a central monologue for Mama Quickly (Shola Adewusi) that references the power of art to reemerge from its shell more potently than ever in the wake of the pandemic and a year of racial reckoning. In its jubilant purposefulness, Merry Wives distills what legacy we need most from Shakespeare now and what art we need most from each other.
Merry Wives is now running at the Delacorte Theatre.