Who couldn’t use a warm welcome back to live theater like the one being offered these late-summer evenings in Central Park? There, Jocelyn Bioh’s “Merry Wives,” a joyful adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor” set in an African diasporic community in Harlem, is doing everything a comedy can do to embrace all comers.
First, the director Saheem Ali, who was born in Kenya, delivers enthusiastic greetings over the Delacorte Theater’s loudspeakers. Next, Farai Malianga, a drummer from Zimbabwe, leads the audience in a call and response chorus of vernacular African salutations: “Asé” (Nigeria), “Yebo” (South Africa) and “Wau-Wau” (Senegal) among them. By the time the play proper starts, we are all guiltless cultural appropriators.
Or should I say the play improper? Purists who pine for the original (circa 1597) text — and possibly the world in which it existed — will find plenty that gets their goat in Bioh’s makeover, including roasted goat. She has cut the number of characters nearly in half and the running time by more than a third. (Ali’s production comes in at a swift 110 minutes, with no intermission.) Much of Shakespeare’s wordplay, incomprehensible without an Elizabethan thesaurus, has been swept away along with words like “master” and “mistress” and their buzzkill implications.
Thankfully, Bioh has not replaced them with woke lecturing. She has said she wanted a “Merry Wives” that her Ghanaian family could enjoy, and in achieving the goal has not excluded the rest of us. Or, rather, she has made us all a part of the family, perhaps erasing some of Shakespeare’s worldview in the process, but underlining the human qualities we know from our own households — or, if not, from popular culture.
So Jacob Ming-Trent, as the idle, appetitive Falstaff, hilariously combines into one bigger-than-life portrait your drunk uncle, a horndog Redd Foxx and some would-be Barry White. The identical mash letters he writes to the two upright wives of the title — the tart Madam Ekua Page (Pascale Armand) and the glamorous Madam Nkechi Ford (Susan Kelechi Watson) — are instantly familiar as the delusions of a sitcom character who, in thinking he’s a catch, sets himself up to be caught.
That the letters are discovered while Madam Page is having her hair done at a Senegalese braiding salon on 116th Street tells you a lot about the production’s good humor. The salon is part of Beowulf Boritt’s elaborate transforming puzzle of a set, which also includes an urgent care clinic run by Dr. Caius (David Ryan Smith) and Mama Quickly (Shola Adewusi), and a laundromat, wittily called the Windsor, where the women’s revenge on Falstaff is eventually carried out amid baskets of “foul linen.”
If the production — including Dede Ayite’s costumes and Cookie Jordan’s wigs — looks especially grand, that is part of the welcome too. The Public Theater could not of course stage any Shakespeare in the Park last year, and for 2021 decided to make the most of its resources by combining its usual two productions into one. The choice of material was likewise a twofer: a big comedy when we really needed one after a small, grim year, yet also a play celebrating Black life in America, when we really needed that as well.
Not just Black life, though. The celebration is universal, which does not always jibe with the petty meanness of the Shakespeare. Casually misogynist references have therefore been excised, so that one character, Anne — the marriageable daughter of Madam Page and her husband, Kwame (Kyle Scatliffe) — is said to speak “sweet-sweet like a woman,” not “small” like one. Abuse of even a fictional female has been flipped: When Falstaff, in the second of his three comeuppances, is beaten “most pitifully” while wearing a ludicrous disguise, it’s as the old man of Benin (“dressed like some ol’ Black Dumbledore”) instead of Shakespeare’s old woman of Brentford. And Bioh has made several adjustments to embrace queerness where the original used it merely for humor.
These substitutions do not feel politically correct so much as warmly embracing. Anne’s three suitors still include the dim Slender (Joshua Echebiri) and the frankly mincing Dr. Caius. But the third, Fenton, is now a pure-hearted woman (MaYaa Boateng) instead of a fortune-seeking man. That Anne’s parents make no fuss about Fenton’s sex (their objections are mostly financial) may feel somewhat utopian, but Anne’s sure preference for her, as expressed in a performance by the actress Abena that’s a standout even in this across-the-board excellent ensemble, is indisputable.
The spurned suitors are let off lightly here; in a switch from the original, both end up liking the match they are tricked into when they cannot have Anne. Unfortunately, the Falstaff part of the story is not, as it should be, more dangerous. With his shin-length shorts and virtual reality goggles, chatting with the audience about a pandemic spent watching Netflix and eating snacks, Ming-Trent’s Falstaff is more of a clown than a menace. As Bioh has written the character, we are forced to conclude that his lust is grotesque because, in an otherwise body-positive production, it is housed in a figure “about two yards wide.”
If that puts too much emphasis on the character’s outer traits, missing the opportunity to use his story to examine men’s inner frailty, Bioh’s script — and Ali’s supple direction — balance that in the story of Madam Ford’s husband, who suffers from the jealous fear that his wife is unfaithful. In a conventional production, Ford is laughable; here, Gbenga Akinnagbe makes the man’s misery quite real. His relief, when his wife forgives him after first torturing him with false evidence, is thus a more moving moment than usual.
Forgiveness, instead of revenge, is the evening’s unexpected theme. And not just for the characters. Near the end, in a coup-de-outdoor-theater, Boritt’s set slides away and offers us all a magical view of Central Park, lit as if it were a heavenly playground by Jiyoun Chang. Can we hope that this marks the beginning of a happier moment in our city and country?
Bioh suggests as much. It is not merely Falstaff she has in mind when demonstrating, in this healing adaptation, that even the worst old reprobates can be taught a lesson and welcomed back into the family. After all, whether from Ghana or Zimbabwe or Brooklyn or Stratford-upon-Avon, we are all, if you look back far enough, an African diasporic community.
Through Sept. 18 at the Delacorte Theater, Manhattan; publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.