After a sojourn last summer in Bicentennial Park during major construction at its home theater, Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park has returned to the Myriad Botanical Gardens Water Stage.
This homecoming’s a welcome return. Moving to the Water Stage three years ago is the best thing that ever happened to OSP, and once the kinks are worked out, the renovated outdoor amphitheater should provide an excellent opportunity for the company, now entering its 27th season, to grow and improve.
Relocating to a new performance space is a discombobulating experience (just ask the folks at Carpenter Square Theatre), so OSP is easing back onto home turf with a fairly lightweight season, starting with “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Shakespeare’s situation comedy about life and lust in the Elizabethan middle class.
In “Merry Wives,” Sir John Falstaff lusts after Mistresses Ford and Page (or really after their husbands’ money); Master Ford lusts for revenge against Falstaff; and a couple of knuckleheads named Abraham Slender and Dr. Caius lust for the hand of Page’s daughter, Anne, who loves a cipher named Fenton. That’s it.
Jon Haque, a terrific comic actor — or comic mugger — plays the portly Falstaff, and he carries the show just as Falstaff must. Haque pays atten tion to detail in creating the character, and he’s a joy to watch. It would be interesting to see him play more dramatic roles.
Master Ford equals Falstaff in importance, and young Aaron Wertheim eventually proves up to the task. Ford has the play’s last and best line when he gives Falstaff an unexpected reverse comeuppance.
Hal Kohlman directs the production, taking a safe approach. He keeps the pace crisp, although the show still runs almost three hours. This is not the Windsor of 2011, where the locals fuss over the marriage of William and Kate. Played in Robert Pittenridge’s sharp Elizabethan costumes, this “Merry Wives” comes off as sort of, well, merry.
The acting varies. The reliable Michael Gibbons is fine as Master Page, as is Leavell Johnson as Host of the Garter Inn. Joel Behne plays Abraham Slender, one of Anne’s suitors, as a fey sissy-pants, creating a subtext that may or may not have occurred to the Bard. Experts disagree.
In returning to the Water Stage, OSP has to deal with some unusual issues for a theater company. The open-air theater is across the street from the under-construction Devon tower; work goes on during performances, creating a constant, low-level drone of industrial white noise.
This shouldn’t necessarily be a big problem as OSP figures out how to adapt to and stage plays in the space under present conditions. Its directors will have to help actors, and actors will have to use their diaphragm and diction as they’ve been trained. As Mama Rose says in “Gypsy,” “Sing out, Louise!” This is another transitional season for OSP and its audience, but the future holds great promise.