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Shakespeare in the Park

A rollicking laugh fest from Animal Fire Theatre

Christine Goode as The Host and Ryan Holmberg as Dr. Caius in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photo credit: Rachel Fitzgerald

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This month of theater in Tacoma and Olympia has been replete with Tony-worthy productions such as Lakewood Playhouse's The Producers, Harlequin's Man of La Mancha, Fun Home at South Puget Sound Community College and Tacoma Little Theatre's Hay Fever. Now comes Animal Fire Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park with The Merry Wives of Windsor -- the funniest Shakespeare comedy I've seen.

In the cool of evening in Olympia's Priest Point Park, Animal Fire puts on a rollicking version of this comic classic, directed by Rachel Fitzgerald.

In Shakespeare's time, the setting was contemporary Windsor in England. Animal Fire moves it to contemporary Windsor, Washington. The aging lothario, Sir John Falstaff (Dave Champagne), is plotting to make love with not one but two married women, Mistress Page (Paige Doyle) and Mistress Ford (Shannon Agostinelli). But the women know what he's up to and want no part of it, and with the help of the other women of Windsor, they set out to make a fool of him and teach him a lesson or two -- or three.

In this play, and particularly in this version of it, the women are truly in control, from Mistresses Page and Ford to the host of the local drinking establishment (Christine Goode) to Page's daughter, Anne (Stephani Hemness), who is in love with Fenton (Lucia Wyss), a young gentleman in the original but a young woman here, despite her parents' determination to marry her off either to young Slender (Ethan Bujeaud) or to the Frenchman, Dr. Caius (Ryan Martin Holmberg). In the process, the women manage to teach the men, and the young people manage to teach their elders valuable lessons about love and honor and respect.

Brian Hatcher is terrifically gruff and outlandish as the Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans; (Drew Doyle) does a masterful job of portraying the jealous Master Ford, and switches persona skillfully as the ill-disguised Brooks.

Paige Doyle plays a dignified and sly Mistress Page, and Agostinelli is impish and delightful as the wily Mistress Ford.

As he has been in show after show, Holmberg is delightfully flamboyant as the absurdly pretentious Dr. Caius. Bujeaud nails the part of the shy and bumbling Slender. And Champagne is a hilarious Falstaff. Seldom has there been a fight scene so funny as the one between Dr. Caius and Sir Hugh. Like a modern-day farce (and with hints of A Midsummer Night's Dream), the action winds up with hordes of fairies pinching Falstaff in the woods and all's well that ends well.

The show is free, donations gladly accepted, and takes place outdoors. A blanket or folding chair to sit on is recommended, as is extra clothing for when the evening cools off, and possibly mosquito repellent, although there were none of those present on opening night.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, 7 p.m., Friday-Sunday, through July 21, free, Priest Point Park, 2600 East Bay Dr. NE, Olympia,

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