The Portland Actors Ensemble's (PAE) Shakespeare in the Parks series is an annual happening, part of an ongoing effort to bring the Bard to the masses. The show moves from park to park, playing to diverse crowds of theatre lovers, theater newbies, and unsuspecting parkgoers alike. PAE's current production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a jolly, good-natured event, providing an opportunity to soak up a little culture while enjoying a lazy afternoon outside.
The script itself, a convoluted comedy of jealousy and revenge, is way too elaborate to detail here. A synopsis is provided in the program to help keep track of what's going on; in extremely abridged terms, Sir John Falstaff (Daniel Shaw) plots to seduce both Alice Ford (Clara-Liis Hillier) and Margaret Page (Margaret Darling), in hopes of getting his hands on their husbands' money. At the same time, Abraham Slender (Jesse Graff) and Dr. Caius (Dan Ruiz Salvatura) compete for the heart of the lovely Anne Page, who in turn loves Fenton (Kyle Virding).
Unraveling the knotty plot is tricky, but director John Monteverde has done everything in his power to make the material as accessible as possible. The cast doesn't shy from physical comedy or nudge-winking the audience, and most all the actors deliver their lines with an ear toward getting the point across. While some of the finer nuances of Shakespearean wordplay may be lost, PAE ensures that the audience gets the gist.
Of course, the mere fact that they perform in parks places certain limitations on PAE's players. Subtlety and nuance are nowhere to be found in this production; but considering that actors must compete with the sounds of crying babies, barking dogs, and snacking audience members, the decision to run with broad, high-volume humor seems like a no-brainer.
While the dated, tunic-and-bustle approach can be off-putting at first, it's ultimately refreshing to see Shakespeare done in this fashion. PAE's populist production is bawdy and crowd pleasing, reminding audiences that once upon a time, at least, theater was a form of popular entertainment.