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Wednesday, July 16, 2008|If you’re hesitant to attend the lesser-known Shakespeare comedy “Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Old Globe this summer, don’t be. You will most certainly NOT be bored. Sunday’s opening night audience whooped and howled with laughter at the play’s slapstick-style and burlesque wit.

Shakespeare’s incomparably infamous rogue, Sir John Falstaff, is at the center of the story. Down on his luck but not without his usual vaulting ambition, he attempts to woo and then blackmail two different married women. When the wives receive his love letters, they gingerly consult each other and decide to seek revenge. A sub-plot involves the younger set: The young Ann Page is being courted by a number of suitors for marriage. Of course, the respective husbands get involved and concoct their own plans and much hilarity ensues from the fearful mess. I’m sure the writers of “I Love Lucy” got a lot of their wacky ideas from “Wives.”

Director Paul Mullins’ inspired Wild West setting — think saloon girls and 10-gallon hats — complemented Shakespeare’s material nicely and added visual flair without ever seeming gimmicky. The frontier small-town where everyone knows everyone else, serves as a brilliant backdrop for the Shakespearian shenanigans. Mullins’ discerning direction kept “Wives” thoughtful themes of love, marriage and jealousy from degenerating into total farce.

Eric Hoffmann’s rotund Falstaff delighted with the vitalism of his every line; the impeccable timing and nuance of character were done with complete facility; the provocative insouciance was superb. Hoffmann’s Falstaff was at his most entertaining when he demonstrated in a twinkle of recognition that the wives were out-cunning even the master himself.

The unfailingly perceptive wives Katie MacNichol (Mistress Ford) and Celeste Ciulla (Mistress Page) proved they could out-fox the wily Falstaff while keeping their dignity intact. MacNichol was unforgettable as she radiated pithy glee as she coolly stoked the fires of her husband’s jealousy. Ciulla exuded charm as Mistress Page — with her commanding prose and subtle asides she even displayed a certain prowess at physical comedy.

Bruce Turk’s sidesplitting turn as the “cuckolded” husband Frank Ford (and as his alter ego Brooke) kept the plot pace moving while literally cracking up the audience. Turk especially excelled at knowing when to put on the brakes; never allowing his character’s zaniness to become irksome.

Jonathan McMurty’s performance seemed straight out of a western movie with his vinegary portrayal of Robert Shallow, the justice of the peace who’s slow on the draw. Sloan Grenz, who was funny in an almost-thankless role, is Slender. The name says it all; he’s a clueless youth in a skinny suit out to “woo” the young Ann Page.

The always entertaining Charles Janasz as Welsh parson Hugh Evans delivers a few hysterical zingers with fantastic timing and comedic instinct.

However, it’s Wynn Harmon who steals every scene he’s in as Doctor Caius, the French doctor who vies in vain for Ann Page’s affection. With his overly “Frahnch” accent, over-dressed attire and over-acting, Wynn’s Caius feels just right.

Period-appropriate costumes by Denitsa Bliznakova are straight out of Tombstone; all boots, buckles and bustles. Falstaff’s extra-long underwear and fringed coat are especially provocative.

Ralph Funicello’s set design augments the milieu effectively.

The Old Globe’s production of “Wives” proves you can have it all by balancing the matters-of-the-heart themes with comedy and the absurd. Spurs and all.

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