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Shakespeare at Equus Run – “The Merry Wives of Windsor”

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For the second straight year, Actors Guild of Lexington is presenting Shakespeare at Equus Run Vineyards, advancing the idea that Shakespeare and wine are two great things that go great together. This year, patrons have been taking in Anthony R. Haigh’s production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” We visited on June 21, the first night of summer, to take in the play and the atmosphere at the Midway vineyard. Photos, audio and productions by Rich Copley | culture writer

By Candace Chaney Contributing Theater Critic

MIDWAY — Nestled along sloping farmland and the tree-lined twists and turns of Elkhorn Creek, the vineyards at Equus Run provide an idyllic setting for a lovely evening of outdoor theater. When you add wine tastings, arts and craft vendors and a delicious meal (on Saturday, when I saw visited, courtesy of Wallace Station), it is pretty hard not to lick your lips with satisfaction. And that is all before the main attraction.

While it is easy to be seduced by the charm of the venue and its unique offerings, let us not forget: The play really is the thing.

Director Anthony R. Haigh certainly has not forgotten. With the second edition of Actors Guild of Lexington’s Shakespeare at Equus Run, he continues the vision that first began with last summer’s play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, in this summer’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. That vision emphasizes quality over quantity, substance over spectacle, and an attitude of let’s get our hands dirty and deeply engage the material.

Merry Wives is a comedy about a foolhardy rogue who earns his living by seducing wealthy women. He writes identical love letters to two women who, in typical Shakespearean fashion, immediately discover the ruse and, instead of confronting him, have a little fun at his expense. In a sense, the play is one long practical joke that the audience is privy to. Unlike some Shakespearean comedies, which are “light” but not always that funny, this is a show that is both.

The bulk of the fun hinges on the hilariously rendered interaction among the play’s sharply drawn, widely relatable and wildly flawed characters. For this, Haigh has assembled an ensemble of tremendous ability. Anyone familiar with Lexington theater might get excited just reading the names in the playbill. Gina Scott-Lynaugh is pure mischief and mirth as the meddlesome (in a good way!) Mistress Quickly. As the Host, her real life husband, John B. Lynaugh, is equally enchanting, wielding his lines with much panache and wry humor. Christopher Rose turns in an absurdly satisfying performance as Dr. Caius, a ridiculously French suitor of the young Ann Page (Becca Finney). Rose’s language drips and oozes a hyperbolic French accent that underlines Shakespeare’s not-so-politically-correct humor of the time. Not restricted to only making fun of the French, Shakespeare gets many good digs in at the Welsh in the form of the character Sir Hugh Evans. As Evans, Tim X. Davis relishes in a thick accent as well delivered as the cast’s ensemble comedic timing.

A nice surprise is newcomer Kevin Greer as Slender, yet another of Ann Page’s suitors. However, Greer does an excellent job conveying (with varying degrees of subtlety) that Slender is ambivalent to the fairer sex and probably prefers his own. Another rare treat is Maureen Gallagher-Kuehler’s performance as the mischievously vengeful Mrs. Page. The trickery conspired by her and Mrs. Ford (Elizabeth Guy) result in some scenes of delightfully humorous Elizabethan girl talk.

Of course, no production of The Merry Wives of Windsor would be complete without a robustly lecherous and magnetically likeable Sir John Falstaff, the drunken, wiley rogue whose sloppy attempts at wooing two married women using a love letter template with only the names changed results in the joke being played on him instead. Haigh stepped into this role at the last minute when actor Jack Parrish had to leave the show for health reasons. Despite this setback, Haigh’s performance does not feel like a rush job. On the contrary, his Falstaff charismatically drives the momentum of the show with alternative moments of gregarious self-inflation to knee-slapping moments of hilarious defeat. Keep your eyes open after intermission when Falstaff comes wading out of Elkhorn Creek in all his dejected non-glory.

Like its inaugural production last year, this summer’s offering of Shakespeare at Equus Run works in elegant symbiosis with its venue, its audience and its ability to summon the past and relate it to the present in a way that is sophisticated, simple, and fun. A refreshing lack of pretense coupled with an earnest scholarship of the work is fast becoming one of the hallmarks of the event.

Presented in natural lighting and clear, crisp sound, The Merry Wives of Windsor succeeds on many levels, the most notable being that, well, when I saw the play, everybody liked it.

Normally, everybody liking it would not be reliable criteria to cite in support of a production’s merit. But, as Shakespeare’s target audience was everybody, from queens to paupers, from nobles to workmen, the hearty laughter and focused engagement I saw among audience members is proof that Haigh and company have masterfully translated Shakespeare’s Elizabethan comedy to modern audiences without sacrificing the depth of the material or the richness of the language, which is quite a feat. The result is a show of remarkable accessibility, humorous exuberance and unyielding quality.

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