‘Merry Wives of Windsor’ kicks off Shakespeare fest

Sir John Falstaff, whose bumbling, stumbling, intoxicatingly fumbling exploits had the groundlings at the Globe Theater rollicking with laughter 415 years ago, will toast the opening production of the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane University this weekend.

Widely acknowledged as the funniest of the bard’s 37 plays, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” opens Thursday for 11 performances over three weekends, ending on June 29.

There will be nine evening shows and two Sunday matinees. Tickets for this show and the others on the boards for this summer’s Shakespeare Fest are now on sale. Directed by Clare Moncrief, “Merry Wives” stars Cassie Worley and Rebecca Frank as the two wives, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, being wooed by the homely, lecherous Falstaff (Danny Bowen). The two young lovers, Anne Page and Fenton, are played by Susan Lanigan and Joey Pilka. The performances will be staged in the Lupin Theater on the Tulane campus.

Following the shows staged during the second week of performances, audiences will be treated to The Shakespearean Jazz Show, possibly the only place in the world where the immortal British playwright’s words are set to live jazz music. Back by popular demand, the SJS, performed by students from Emerson College, was a huge hit with its audiences when it debuted a year ago. There is a separate charge for the Jazz Show.

Celebrating its 20th season, the New Orleans Shakespeare Festival at Tulane will run throughout the summer with both traditional Shakespearean productions and innovative spin-offs of Shakespeare’s masterworks. A month after the opening production, one of Shakespeare’s most memorable tragedies, “Romeo and Juliet” will be staged from July 11-27 and, sandwiched in between will be “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged),” a humorous abbreviated compendium of all or most of Shakespeare’s works, including the sonnets. “The Complete Works” stars Brendan Bowen, Clint Johnson and Andy Bowen, under the direction of Carl Walker.

Closing out the summer, the students of the Gavin Mahlie All Things Shakespeare Training Program will present “The Taming of the Shrew.” Directed by Rebecca Frank and Artemis Preeshl, the show runs Aug. 8 to 11.

“Because this is our 20th year of operation, we were looking to make this a very special season,” said Moncrief, who is also in her 15th year as managing director of the festival. “And although every year we do two major Shakespeare plays, this year we were truly anxious that it be a festival with something for everyone.”

Newcomers in particular should enjoy the light-hearted productions, she said.

“Some people might like to ease into Shakespeare if they’re not already great fans of it,” Moncrief said. “And one way to do that is with humor.”

Citing the festival’s decision to include “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged),” she said. “It gives you a great deal of exposure to Shakespeare’s works but in a very comedic way. In a ‘Monty Python-esque’ way.” It’s definitely rated PG-13,” she said.

Directing a comedy like “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” Moncrief noted, was a big change from the tragedy of “Hamlet” she directed in 2012.

“We are doing this (‘Merry Wives’) in the pure Elizabethan period, just like it would have been in Shakespeare’s time. It’s very farcical, about real people, and very funny. It’s been a pleasure to direct it. The actors expressed the same sentiments — that because it’s been funny, it’s been a lot of fun. We’re all confident the audience is going to see it the same way.”