“It’s been a long, hard year,” John Falstaff (Jacob Ming-Trent) complains in Merry Wives, Jocelyn Bioh’s update of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Delacorte Theatre. “Been stuck in the house just eating snacks. Watching Netflix. Bored outta my Got-damned mind!” So when it comes to his somewhat clumsy attempts to seduce his neighbors’ wives, Falstaff finishes with a flourish, “Can you blame me for tryna get with Madam Page and Madam Ford?”
The comedy, directed by Saheem Ali, the Public Theater’s associate artistic director, unfolds among the West African immigrant denizens of West 116th Street, a thriving stretch of contemporary Harlem. The conceit is fairly shoehorned-in — nothing in Shakespeare’s comedy of foiled cuckoldry suggests this particular milieu.
But Beowulf Boritt’s street-scene set of row houses and loud and battered awnings is riotously colorful and cartoonish. It eventually swings open to reveal the gorgeous tableau of Belvedere Castle and the duck pond beyond the theater – a triumphant use of mise-en-scène, even if it is two miles south of the action.
Falstaff’s fourth-wall breaking asides recur throughout, as befitting the dissolute knight’s historical engagement with the real world: having been killed off in Henry IV, Part 2, he only made his appearance in The Merry Wives of Windsor when Elizabeth I demanded her favorite character’s return. Ming-Trent evokes the character’s innate theatricality. Sir John’s not particularly funny on the page, but the right actor makes him sing onstage. Kyle Scatliffe, as the benevolently patriarchal Mr. Page, and Julian Rozzell Jr., totally at home as the aged justice Shallow, are other standouts.
The text is substantially Shakespeare’s, but Bioh interpolates some nods to the contemporary climate, including an adapted African tribal chant in Act V that includes a heartfelt, if somewhat hackneyed, plea for racial justice: “Our hues and lives matter, full stop… Call forth those in power to make room now / To do as they’ve promised and vowed / Now is the time for the reformation.” The frequent uses of direct address and politically motivated addenda make sense as pointed arrows to the Bard’s similar, if subtler references to issues of the time, but they produce diminishing returns as the play goes on.
Bioh, who wrote School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play, has been open about her desire to write joyful stories about the Black experience. “We’ve had a lot of conversations in the past year about blackness,” she told the Times, “how it’s portrayed, how it’s viewed… the diaspora and how we see it in all its forms and facets, and I feel like my work — what I’m trying to do — is add to the conversation of how the diaspora is reflected.” Merry Wives is nothing if not celebratory, though perhaps that has more to do with its re-inauguration of live theater in New York than its thin contribution to the conversation about the diaspora.