FORT WORTH -- About the only thing better than a good cup of coffee is a couple of good acts of Coffee.
TCU's Trinity Shakespeare Festival delivered just that Thursday at the Hays Theatre with its opening-night presentation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, starring noted local actor David Coffee as the irrepressible Sir John Falstaff -- a character that adds a whole new meaning to the term "knight errant."
This comedy, directed by the festival's artistic director T.J. Walsh, manages to meet the extremely high standards set by the previous productions in this summer Shakespeare series, not only because of Coffee's excellent work, but also because of a cast that is solid from top to bottom.
The plot of the play focuses on the amorous exploits of the rotund and blustery Falstaff, who foolishly attempts to woo the wives of two well-to-do Windsorites. But rather than making the aging knight a lover, the women determine to make him a foil. The tricks they play on him (made easy by his vanity and lust) teach both Falstaff and their husbands a thing or two about love and fidelity.
Coffee, who has earned respect for his comedic performances in particular, is every bit as good as his fans would hope for him to be in this ideal showcase for his talents. In fact, if you know his work, you may find this to be among his best performances yet, because he does not overplay a role that begs to be overplayed. He makes Falstaff more real than most actors would, playing the man as well as he plays the buffoon. Consequently, we laugh harder when he is comic and care more when things go from bad to worse for the hard-drinking knight.
He is able to choose that approach to his character because of the incredibly strong support that he receives from the rest of the cast. Falstaff is the lead, but the Bard is more egalitarian in passing the lines around in this play than in most. So a number of players have substantial parts, and none of them fails to take advantage of any opportunity presented by the text.
Richard Haratine brings a John Cleese-like physicality to one of the husbands, Frank Ford. His facial expressions and movements are a scream as he tries to sort out what is going on with Falstaff and his wife, Alice (Trisha Miller).
Blake Heckler is over the top as the feisty French physician, Doctor Caius. He takes far too many liberties with his character and lines, but he is also frequently hilarious.
Amber Quinn, as Mistress Quickly, is another standout player. She employs an ideal accent for the role (as does almost every member of the cast) and is consistently natural in her delivery.
Miller and, the other wife, Lydia Mackay (as Margaret Page), play off one another well as they plot their responses to Falstaff's unwelcome advances.
There are also a couple of student players of note. Bradley Gosnell, in the relatively small role of Fenton, still needs to learn the difference between shouting and projection. But he has stage presence to burn and appears to be an actor of great potential.
Fellow drama student Amber Flores, as Fenton's love interest, Anne Page, also makes an impression. One of her best moments is a little song she sings from the second level of scenic designer Sean Urbantke's lovely, two-tiered set.
That tune, and a handful of others, are among the unique touches in this production. The often incomprehensible Shakespearean songs are modernized and highly polished. There is a moment late in the second act when you might think you have wandered into a production of Falstaff: The Musical!
Another interesting turn is a strobe-lit, slo-mo approach to one of the play's more chaotic moments.
So Walsh's direction takes care of the basics well -- this one of the best prepared casts you will ever see -- and also adds a few unexpected twists. About the only aspect that might be second guessed (besides the near three-hour running time) is the blocking, which is frequently without textural motivation. Characters take the stage and move to a predetermined spot based on being seen and heard, not by what the script is saying. So it is an understandable choice made by Walsh, but it often results in stiff and stilted compositions on the stage.
On the whole, however, this production is fabulous. You will seldom see so many fine performances in a single show.