The Merry Wives of Windsor — Shakespeare’s only play that centers around everyday working folk — is a wonderful selection for the Public Theater’s 2021 offering. This production arrives after a difficult stretch which renewed awareness of our neighbors and neighborhoods. For this rendition, the location has been dropped from the title and the spouses in question have been moved to South Harlem. There, Farai Malianga engages with the audience as a congenial street drummer. After a quick lesson in African diaspora, he ushers in the local residents who will share their story. Layabout John Falstaff has grown weary of his VR light saber and nutrition-free snacking and is ready to get out and mingle. He has his eye on Mmes Ekua Page and Nkechi Ford, two close friends with husbands of means. Even his wooing is lazy and he sends the exact same love letter to them both. Thankfully they are clever bad ass women who know how to handle themselves. Ekua has the additional responsibility of finding a suitable match for her beautiful daughter, Anne. She has her heart set on the prestigious Doctor Caius, while Mr Ford has selected Slender, a sweet but rather simple young man. But like her mother, Anne has a mind of her own and her lover of choice is not negotiable.
Saheem Ali’s staging takes advantage of the Delacorte’s airy space, filling it with the vibrant energy of his enthusiastic ensemble. Jacob Ming-Trent is a total joy as a noisy, brash, and notorious-in-his-own-mind Falstaff. His journey via laundry basket has never been funnier. There is such warmth and charm in his performance, one feels a bit sorry about his treatment at the hands of far wittier Wives. Susan Kelechi Watson’s Madam Ford grabs attention with her fabulous moves while Pascale Armand’s Madam Page is a commanding and calculating conspirator. Both employ West African accents which add flavor though may present a challenge for unaccustomed ears. Shola Adewusi as Mama Quickly and David Ryan Smith as the dapper doc make the most of their two dimensional characters with their impeccable timing.
Ghanaian-American writer Jocelyn Bioh has condensed Shakespeare’s comedy to a brisk 110 minutes and spiced up the language with modern slang and appropriate cultural references from jollof rice to Dreamgirls. Upbeat musical cues by composer Michael Thurber as well as Dede Ayite’s brilliant outfits set off with hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan punch up the energy. Stagehands outfitted as sanitation workers work speedily to redress the backgrounds. The colorfully rendered settings by Broadway vet Beowulf Boritt include a hair braiding salon, laundromat, family clinic and walkup apartment house, though nothing tops the natural beauty of the park itself, revealed in its natural splendor for the final scene.
The material is not the only part of the equation that is an appropriate match to this moment. While much of the venue is seated at full capacity, sections are reserved for those who prefer to remain masked and distanced. A fleet of volunteers help everyone find their place quickly and enforce protocols as needed. The touchless program is accessed using a QR code on the seatback.
The entirety of Merry Wives is a celebration of life, tolerance, and togetherness. It is a love letter to New York and New Yorkers and a wonderful excuse to share a belly laugh in a crowd after a long stretch in isolation. In particular, it is a fitting tribute to the residents of Seneca Village, the 19th Century Black community that lived on the land that is now occupied by Central Park. Performances have been extended through September 20. Visit https://publictheater.org/productions/season/2021/sitp/merry-wives/ for free ticketing information.
Lynn Nottage on Mlima’s Tale
Playwright Lynn Nottage is seemingly everywhere. Her wide appeal and astonishing tonal range stretch from the gut-wrenching Ruined to the broad humor of By the Way, Meet Vera Stark. Two of her plays — Clyde’s and Sweat — are among the ten most produced of this year’s season. The operatic version of her drama, Intimate Apparel, for which she wrote the libretto, is currently on PBS as part of their Great Performances series. And she wrote the book for the Michael Jackson jukebox musical, MJ, now playing on Broadway. Her long reach is made possible in part by a form of self-care. She gives herself a mental break from covering thornier issues by simultaneously writing a comedy.
Last Thursday in an evening co-presented by the Center for Fiction in Brooklyn and Theatre Communications Group (TCG), the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner sat down for her first conversation with Damon Tabor. The investigative journalist wrote an article, “The Ivory Highway,” that inspired her play Mlima’s Tale. He had tracked the intertwined entities responsible for the horrendous international ivory trade. Offenders include poachers, smugglers and all-too-knowing buyers. Moved by what she read in his piece, Nottage buried herself in research. It revealed a genuine possibility of a world without elephants and she felt the need to sound an alarm. She educated herself about the communication style of elephants, especially their deeply social nature. Eventually she developed a story from the viewpoint of a rare big-tusker, beginning with his murder and following the trail through all of those who were complicit in his death. She named him Mlima, Swahili for mountain.
The script is structured as a series of one-on-one conversations illustrating the chain as Mlima’s tusks move from one possessor to the next. Always one for putting a face on an issue, Nottage had the lead character of Mlima portrayed by a human actor. This enabled her to let him more easily communicate to the audience and bring his emotions fully into the room. Rather than using the traditional approach of hiring the production crew after the cast had begun their work, Nottage brought the entire team together from day one, resulting in a more cohesive artistic statement. Oscar winning director, Kathryn Bigelow, brought her genuine outrage and big picture thinking to the initial run-throughs. The impactful concept of having Mlima physically leave his mark on all the perpetrators by smearing them in white came from costume designer Jennifer Moeller.
Mlima’s Tale, was nominated by the Outer Critics Circle in several categories when New York’s Public Theater presented the world premiere in 2018 under the direction of Jo Bonney. The book can be purchased here: https://shop.aer.io/tcg/p/Mlimas_Tale/9781559369114-9511. Performances are currently playing at 1st Stage in Tysons, Virginia and due to open soon at the Arsht Center in Miami, Florida. Productions are also being prepared internationally, though significantly not in China where the ivory trade still flourishes.
Image: Ito Aghayere, Sahr Ngaujah and Kevin Mambo in the 2018 World Premiere of Mlima’s Tale. © Joan Marcus.