“Merry Wives” production shows Shakespeare knows a good laugh

By Michael W. Freeman

College Park Forum Editor

FEBRUARY 9, 2015, 11:33 AM | COLLEGE PARK

Mention that a play by Shakespeare is now being performed, and audiences are likely to think of the Bard’s great dramatic and gripping tragedies.

It’s also worth noting that Shakespeare wrote his share of comedies as well.

In an era when television and cable sit-coms and raunchy humor in the movies rule the day, how exactly does a comedy by Shakespeare make people … well, laugh?

Quite effectively, the actors insist.

“Shakespeare loves to play with language,” said Christopher Joel Onken, who is performing in the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s new production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”

And if audiences might think of Shakespeare’s style of humor as being intellectual and highbrow, the truth is, Onken said, that he aimed for audiences both highly educated, and the uneducated masses, in equal doses.

“During productions at the old Globe (Theater in London), your common man would come see a production – as well as royalty,” he said.

In fact, Onken added, this new production actually has a lot in common with the style of humor and physical comedy that television audiences will associate with a show like “I Love Lucy.”

“I Love Lucy”?

Absolutely, Onken said, adding “There are elements of that.”

The new production of “Merry Wives,” which was directed by Brian Vaughn and runs through March 7, is set in the 1950s, and uses sets that evoke that era – particularly through those TV shows from the medium’s golden age.

“Our production of ‘Merry Wives’ appeals to that sitcom market,” Onken said.

The play is a real delight for the actors, said Danielle Renee, who is also performing in the show.

For one thing, she said, Shakespeare’s clever use of language is truly engaging.

“There’s so many double meanings in the words he chose,” she said. “Because the actors are so well versed in Shakespeare, we knew how to effectively communicate that to the audience.”

In addition to setting the play in the 1950s, the landscape is shifted from England to the United States. “We’re not using British accents,” Renee said.

In its place, “There’s some New Jersey, New York, some Philly, and some Southern accents as well,” Onken said. They’re all used to great comedic effect, he said, especially with the Bard’s masterful use of words.

“We’ll do things like a turn of a phrase, when a character says something and it comes back to play on him,” Onken said. “And then there are various double entendres. Shakespeare is giving us a poetic language to use that we don’t use every day.”

But it won’t seem dry and stuffy, he added.

“Your standard fool in a show would be someone the audience would be familiar with and would recognize, and you’d laugh with them and at them,” he said. “This is fun, schticky stuff.”

Shakespeare knew how to make his humor universal, Renee added.

“People laugh today, but they laughed 400 years ago,” she said. “Although humor has changed, we still laugh at the same things.”

Tickets to “Merry Wives” can be booked by calling 407-447-1700, Ext. 1, visiting http://www.orlandoshakes.org, or in person at the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center at 812 E. Rollins St.

mwfreeman@sun-sentinel.com or 407-420-5290.

Copyright © 2015, Orlando Sentinel

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