Bedlam director delivers darker ‘Merry Wives’ at Two River Theater

Zuzanna Szadkowski, Jason O'Connell and Nicole Lewis in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at the Two River Theater in Red Bank. (PHOTO: T. Charles Erickson)
Zuzanna Szadkowski, Jason O’Connell and Nicole Lewis in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Two River Theater in Red Bank. (PHOTO: T. Charles Erickson)

The second the lights come up on the set of the Two River Theater’s  “The Merry Wives of Windsor” you know this production is not your grandmother’s Shakespeare.

Sir John Falstaff (Jason O’Connell) is handcuffed to a bed with a ball gag in his mouth and wearing very little else. Mistress Ford (Nicole Lewis), in black baby-doll lingerie, stands next to the bed holding a gun.

The location is a seedy motel room strewn with clothes, liquor bottles, and garbage. It’s decorated with bulls’ horns, paint-by-number art, and a multi-colored carpet that hides all stains. Projected on the wall are the words “Right Now.”

After about 15 seconds, a blackout. The audience sits in the dark for less than a minute and when the lights come back up, the room is neat and orderly. The projection states “Yesterday.” That earned a smattering of applause.

Third act seating for Bedlam's "Hamlet" at McCarter Theatre, Princeton. (PHOTO: Gretchen Van Benthuysen)
Third act seating for Bedlam’s “Hamlet” at McCarter Theatre, Princeton. The onstage seating changed three times during the play. (PHOTO: Gretchen Van Benthuysen)

Adapted and directed by Eric Tucker, a co-founder of the young Bedlam theater company whose mission includes removing barriers between the audience and actors. Sometimes patrons are seated on stage as Tucker did for his January staging of “Hamlet” at McCarter Theatre in Princeton. 

“Merry Wives,” like “Hamlet,” has a much reduced cast. Three actors play all the characters. (“Hamlet” had four). Joining O’Connell’s Falstaff and Lewis’ Mistress Ford is Zuzanna Szadkowski as Mistress Page. They change characters by altering posture, voices, bits of costumes, their gait. It’s incredible acting.

But, if you don’t know the play well, you might get lost as more characters — especially minor ones — make their appearance. When Tucker blew up the script, he also dumped its linear aspect. Sure, we are guided by the projected titles — Day Before Yesterday, A Little After, A Few Minutes Ago — but it’s hard to keep track. And, while billed as a 90-minute, no-intermission show, the performance I saw ran almost two hours.

Tucker loves delving deep into Shakespeare and this adaptation, while often funny, mines the darker aspects of the play about a former BFF of King Henry V of England and his attempts to seduce and fleece two wealthy,  married women. He wants everyone to fall in love with Shakespeare’s language so if you know/and or have teens  or Millennials you want to introduce to the Bard, you need to be comfortable sitting next to them for the kind simulated sex scene resembling the kind you see for real on cable TV or R-rated movies.

O’Connell’s Falstaff walks with a swagger, wears cheap polyester pants, a vented faux leather jacket, and thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. He also thinks his female targets aren’t smart. They are women after all.

Lewis and Szadkowski portray the majority of the other characters. What we take away is Mistress Ford is the brains of the operation to undo Falstaff and Mistress Page follows along.

Lee Savage’s set is almost a fourth character in the play. The two “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”-like paintings open enabling the actors to change character without changing costume. The bathroom also serves as a place for one character enter and reappear elsewhere, as does one of the beds when Falstaff crawls underneath to hide but pops up somewhere else.

Lighting by Eric Southern, costumes by Jessica Pabst, and sound by Karin Graybash enhance the show stage-managed by Brett Anders.

Ultimately, the audience is witness to Falstaff’s humiliation. “I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass,” he realizes much too late.” Then there is the final insult — the ladies abandon him alone on stage and a female stage hand comes out with the key and unlocks the handcuffs. He gathers his clothes and furtively slinks away.

 Zuzanna Szadkowski as Mistress Page (left) and Nicole Lewis as Mistress Ford, two women determined to make sure Falstaff regrets messing with them. (PHOTO: T. Charles Erickson)
Zuzanna Szadkowski as Mistress Page (left) and Nicole Lewis as Mistress Ford, two women determined to make sure Falstaff regrets messing with them. (PHOTO: T. Charles Erickson)The Merry Wives of Windsor

Two River Theater

21 Bridge Ave., Red Bank. Tickets: $50-$70 (discounts available) by calling 732-345-1400 or online at http://www.tworivertheater.org. Through March 26

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