Director Becky Kemper based her version of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” now at African-American Shakespeare Company, on the chitlin circuit, the network of theaters and clubs where black performers entertained black audiences during segregation.
To that end, she set it in the 1950s (represented by some songs and by Linda Tucker’s period-appropriate costumes) and created a loosey-goosey, raucous atmosphere with actor Amy Lizardo as an assured and vivacious emcee.
Performers fluff the audience by singing in a cappella harmony before the show begins and also during two “interludes,” and house lights remain on throughout the show to encourage lively viewer response (a nice idea that doesn’t quite jell when the audience is small).
This “Merry Wives” is distinguished by an all-black cast with some double casting. Actors switch characters in full view of the audience. They also change the sets, providing illustrated signposts to indicate the various scenes.
There’s even some cross-gender casting, most excellently realized in the performance of Belinda Sullivan, who waddles around with pompous dignity as a mustachioed, smarmy and lascivious Falstaff. Sullivan knows how to infuse the Shakespearean text with clarity and nuance.
There’s lots of merrymaking in this mischievous, small-town tale in which the rotund knight attempts to seduce two women — and make some money in the deal as well — and is eventually outed and humiliated.
Amid an uneven cast (some of the actors are too broad and cartoonish, others too bland), Leontyne Mbele-Mbong and Safiya Fredericks, as Mistresses Ford and Page, respectively, are impressive as the two objects of Falstaff’s unseemly lust. The scenes in which all three are onstage tend to work best.
Other standouts are Martin Grizzell as the effete doctor who’s among the suitors for young Anne Page’s hand (minor spoiler here: his reaction at the end, when he realizes he’s been tricked into marrying a man, is delicious); Armond Edward Dorsey as a hysterical Master Ford, convinced he’s been cuckolded; and an elegantly attired Sherri Young as the sly Mistress Quickly.
Despite erratic pacing, some missed opportunities for funny business and the cast’s tendency to overtelegraph the comic plot points (in keeping with Kemper’s overall chitlin circuit concept, apparently), this low-tech production has its moments of sheer delight.
The play’s final scene, in which the entire town turns up to terrorize Falstaff in the woods with a rhythmic, ritualistic dance, is an especially well-designed finale.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Presented by the African-American Shakespeare Company
Where: Buriel Clay Theater, African American Art & Culture Complex, 762 Fulton St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes May 26
Tickets: $10 to $35
Contact: (800) 838-3006, www.African-AmericanShakes.org