Chicago Shakespeare prides itself as a theater company that presents the Bard’s plays as sophisticated yet engaging and understandable. Sometimes that’s the case, sometimes not. The productions helmed by artistic director Barbara Gaines inevitably fall into the latter category. When it comes to running the company, her instincts are formidable—but you can’t help wishing she’d leave the actual directing of shows to other hands. She seems to do better with comedies—as opposed last year’s thudding production of “King John”—and with Greg Vinkler in full bluster-and-gusto mode as Falstaff, this “Merry Wives of Windsor” has its bright moments. More like a three-hour sitcom than a play, the story attempts that trickiest of feats: Take the loudmouthed sidekick and make him the leading man. (There’s a reason you don’t see anyone clamoring for a movie based on Jim Belushi’s character in “About Last Night.”) But Shakespeare does just that, propelling Falstaff, a sideman and partner-in-debauchery to Henry V in previous plays, into the realm of protagonist status. The story in a nutshell: Falstaff sets out to seduce a pair of married women. In this production, Vinkler’s portrayal is a weird amalgamation of Santa (jolly in that fat suit and beard) and Benny Hill (a mischief maker with a an inappropriate libido). It’s funny enough. Charming, too. But the true scene-stealer is the hilariously put-upon performance by Ross Lehman as the one husband who finds out about Falstaff’s plan. Scott Jaeck, as the swishy French doctor, is also good. But despite these strong efforts, the production rolls along like a deflated tire. And it is a bumpy, laborious ride. (Nina Metz)
This production is now closed.