Legend holds that Shakespeare wrote "The Merry Wives of Windsor" because Queen Elizabeth I wanted to see more of Sir John Falstaff, the fat knight she enjoyed in the "Henry IV" plays. Legend does not tell us what she thought of seeing him shamed, pinched, stuffed into a basket of dirty laundry and even burned with candles, as he is in Shakespeare's comic spinoff.
It's a rather pathetic role for the knight whom Prince Hal once regarded as a father figure. That may explain why it's generally easier to laugh at the characters who surround Falstaff in "Merry Wives." (It may also explain why the play is called "Merry Wives" and not "Falstaff").
Indeed, in the bright lively production mounted by Shakespeare on Wheels -- the traveling theater of the University of Maryland Baltimore County -- the wives and those around them prove funnier than Dan Garrett's bellowing Falstaff, whose padding does not disguise the fact he is far from Falstaffian in girth.
However, Garrett's narrowness (in his acting as well as girth) is more than compensated for by Sharol Buck as Mistress Ford and Joy Michener as Mistress Page, two delightfully merry mischief makers.
From the moment these middle-class housewives discover that Falstaff has sent them identical love letters, there's no question that their elaborate scheming will outwit him.
We sympathize with Mistress Ford all the more because she is at the mercy of a husband so crazed with jealousy he is the comic flip-side of Shakespeare's tragic Othello -- a connection Shakespeare on Wheels regulars are sure to make since Ford is played by James Brown-Orleans, who had the title role in last summer's "Othello." As Ford, he is an antic fool so convinced of his suspicions that he doesn't even try to keep them to himself.
He's especially amusing delivering his asides, which he repeatedly shares with Maria Tibbels, the production's highly expressive sign language interpreter.
"Merry Wives" lends itself to tinkering more than many other Shakespeare plays, but director Sam McCready keeps this production close to its Elizabethan roots, with a few exceptions. Most noticeably, the actors wear half-masks with exaggerated noses, designed by costumer Elena Zlotescu.
The effect reminds us of what clowns these people are -- without letting us forget their resemblance to ourselves.
The play's inherent silliness is also reinforced by J. Michael Griggs' stunning set, which looks like a cross between a rustic cottage and an elaborate piece of playground equipment.
One of the nicest touches is having the actors play musical instruments. Michener's Mistress Page provides frequent accompaniment on the piccolo; Jacob Zahniser, as Sir Hugh Evans, the parson, plays the mandolin; and many others do double duty as percussionists.
Another of director McCready's interpolations involves bringing two audience members on stage to carry the laundry basket into which Falstaff is dumped. It's an amusing way to emphasize one of this traveling theater's best features -- its anti-elitist, populist approach.
According to a recent issue of Theater Week magazine, there are more than 100 Shakespeare festivals in this country, but nine years after its founding, Shakespeare on Wheels remains the only one that brings the Bard directly into audiences' back yards.
It's an ingenious concept, and it's merrily demonstrated by this year's "Merry Wives."
'The Merry Wives of Windsor'
NTC When: Tonight and tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Coppin State University, 2500 W. North Ave. Shakespeare on Wheels performs at 28 sites in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and Washington through Oct. 3. (Next Baltimore performance July 21 at Wyman Park Dell.) Call for full schedule.
Call: (410) 455-3058.