(photo by Photo Courtesy Broad Stage)

BROAD STAGE — For many a 21st century audience member, it may be a surprise to learn that the author of “Hamlet” and “King Lear” was, in his day, not an ivory tower type but something more akin to a pop culture prince.

Yet it’s true: Shakespeare, the English language’s foremost tragedian, also penned what amount to the late-16th century equivalent of prime-time sitcoms.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor,” now being performed at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage through Oct. 24, is a standout in the Bard’s low-brow oeuvre.

With a plotline that wouldn’t be much of a stretch as a “Three Stooges” episode, it’s perhaps the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays, complete with a clueless Frenchman, a duped husband donning a wig in disguise, and, most memorably, the obese Sir John Falstaff managing a narrow escape via a laundry basket full of dirty clothes.

The production by the troupe from Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London plays up the silliness and milks the antiquated laugh lines for all they’re worth, making for a fast-paced and thoroughly enjoyable, though far from edifying, experience.

The action centers on a plan hatched by two housewives to get the better of the conniving Falstaff, a would-be adulterer who aims to profit from his imagined amorous charms.

The protagonists here are not lovelorn nobles, but ordinary folk, making “Merry Wives” the lone Shakespeare play to be set amongst the middle classes.

While it doesn’t offer the elevation of the Bard’s best-known works, it’s good fun — a pop-culture experience from 400 years ago that shows how little some things have changed.

The Broad Stage performance is a revival of the 2008 London production and the first stop on the company’s tour, which next heads to New York and then to the UK for a string of performances.

True to its sitcom-like plot and tone, the pacing here is brisk, with a revolving two-sided set helping speed along scenery changes and letting the actors quickly whisk on and off the stage. Musicians decked out in period costumes supply the score from a bandstand perched atop the set, helping with the lighthearted mood that prevails throughout.

Indeed, even Falstaff’s inevitable public shaming that concludes the play is more about celebrating a well-executed hoax than about preserving the social order from a credible threat, as the fat knight himself is invited to take part in the ensuing festivities.

“Merry Wives” probably didn’t make the syllabus in your AP English class, and just as well: the pleasure here comes mainly from the visual gags and the vivaciousness of the cast, rather than from the poetry or the characters’ psychological complexity.

One word of warning: Despite its relative simplicity, the old English lines come at you quickly, so a pre-performance reading of the synopsis is highly recommended.

Performances are Wednesday through Sunday at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica

Box Office: (310) 434-3200 or www.thebroadstage.com/windsor.

nickt@www.smdp.com

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *