The Bard in Buckskin

Great Lakes offers a singing, dancing Shakespeare.

Lone Star Love / Refuge Lone Star Love
Ohio Theatre, 1519 Euclid Avenue, through November 4, 216-241-6000 or 800-766-6048

Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights, through November 10, 216-932-3396

Jay O. Sanders's Falstaff vies for the wives (Sara Gettelfinger, left, and - Allison Briner).
Jay O. Sanders's Falstaff vies for the wives (Sara Gettelfinger, left, and Allison Briner).
According to theater history's most enduring legend, Good Queen Bess found her regal self so enamored of the bawdy misadventures of Sir John Falstaff that she ordered him up his own play. In the resulting Merry Wives of Windsor, the unrepentant bad-boy knight no longer had to play second fiddle to the self-righteous Prince Hal.

This is the only play Shakespeare ever set in his contemporary England, dealing with the same bourgeoisie that made up his audiences. There, the errant knight is demoted from Machiavellian schemer to debased clown. Trying to seduce two matrons, he is outwitted, splashed with the contents of chamber pots, dunked in the River Thames, and fervently humiliated in public. This, the Bard's earthiest play, was a joint of bawdy mutton to satiate the Elizabethan public, but to today's more refined tastes, it seems coarse and cruel, and is seldom presented in its original form. To make it work, it needs the softening influence of music. For example, when refashioned as Verdi's exquisite final opera Falstaff, it became a glorious farewell for Italian opera's undisputed master.

Now rechristened Lone Star Love, or The Merry Wives of Windsor, Texas at the Great Lakes Theater Festival, it has been gussied up with buckskin in lieu of farthingales, six-shooters instead of swords, and western sass instead of Elizabethan licentiousness. In it, Shakespeare's immortal reprobate embarks on a promising new singing and dancing career.

Though it lacks the explosiveness of West Side Story and the effortless elegance of Kiss Me, Kate, Lone Star Love is on its way to being a cherished part of the repertory of musicalized Bard. It's also the merriest country-western goose since The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

Adapter John L. Haber has been tinkering with this work for five years and has come up with a pleasing juxtaposition of Elizabethan whimsy and western Americana. Thus, we have a coterie of tobacco-chewing, horny cowboys drawling, "They give the leer of invitation" in reference to the local wanton women. Jack Herrick's music and lyrics bring to mind a K-Tel album like Legendary Cowboy Hits of the Last 100 Years. It is all ingenious pastiche, doubtful for having a life outside the context of the musical. The show excels in its scavenger-hunt quality, with delirious references to dozens of works ranging from Oklahoma! to Paint Your Wagon.

We're in post-Civil War Texas. The Mel Brooks mood of madcap anachronisms is set when Falstaff, a Confederate colonel, halts a hail of bullets with a stop sign. The more audiences are indoctrinated in old-time western mythology, the more they'll relish the in-jokes, including what was, in the original play, a Renaissance scholar, here introducing himself as a yodeling cowboy. The actor, wittily played by Clarke Thorell, sends the evening happily down its pixilated path as he sings the lonesome ballad "Prairie Moon" with an uncanny Gene Autry twang. Adding to the evening's raucous spirit is the noted singing group the Red Clay Ramblers.

With a Patsy Cline country-girl vibrato, Christeena Michelle Riggs brings a vibrancy to the proceedings. She looks fragile as a doll, but acts tough as the bull on her father's ranch. As the two wives of Windsor, Sara Gettelfinger and Allison Briner combine the best of Broadway divas and Nashville nightingales. Hiding a cowboy under her voluminous skirts, the effervescent Brenda Braxton contributes her share of comic pizzazz. Stephen Temperley's fractured-French-speaking Doctor Caius is pure Peter Sellers by way of Monty Python.

Jay O. Sanders, as Falstaff, has a cast-iron naughtiness and cheeks that puff like an organ grinder's monkey. He suggests an overgrown Spanky McFarland, leading his rascal marauders across the Texas Panhandle.

The show benefits from being trimmed 20 minutes since its Great Lakes opening. Director Michael Bogdanov has artfully managed the neat trick of blending American musical roughhouse with British farce. Now if he could only come up with a grand finish, the show will have bona fide Broadway-hit potential. And if that happens, we can brag to New Yorkers that we saw it here first.

If Lone Star Love is a feel-good reshuffle of tried-and-true theater conventions, Refuge at Dobama comes under the category of revivifying sweet surprise.

This tenderly odd, amorphous play by Jessica Goldberg manages to be emotionally articulate while chronicling the lives of four inarticulate characters. Like the works of Carson McCullers, it chronicles the strange kinship of society's rejects. It tells how three siblings, deserted by their parents, find unexpected succor after the eldest sister's encounter with a stranger at a bar. The play is like a strangely beautiful water plant growing in a fetid swamp. It finds grace in life's most mundane aspects.

Lori Scarlett, a translucent blonde who specializes in neurotic waifs, has never been more affecting than as the eldest sister, a trapped caretaker who has started to lose her own identity. Nick Koesters, who up till now has specialized in eye-popping comic hysterics, shows a halting tenderness and delicacy as the aimless drifter who finds his purpose in untangling a dysfunctional family. As a brother and sister sinking into a destructive morass of self-pity, Perren Henderson and Courtney Schloss effectively embody wounded creatures.

Director Sonya Robbins lets the play's strange poetry flourish, while Richard Ingraham's otherworldly sound design puts it into its own haunted universe. Refuge acts as an intoxicating espresso on its spectators, sending their senses hurtling. It makes the tawdry seem capable of a special grace.

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