THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR, Shakespeare Repertory. According to tradition Shakespeare wrote this play at the command of Queen Elizabeth, who so loved Falstaff in Henry IV, parts one and two, that she yearned to see the rotund rogue knight in a romantic comedy. Admittedly light and seldom produced, the play is often considered mere hackwork. And certainly at times it does seem overwritten and underedited, as if it had been composed in a hurry.

The two plots–one involving Falstaff, the other a young woman torn among three suitors–take forever to get started, proceed with sometimes infuriating slowness, and occasionally stop dead in their tracks so that some comic character can get a little extra shtick time. But as Barbara Gaines reveals in this inspired top-flight production, the play can also be great fun. Especially if you throw a lot of money at it, build a sumptuous set (designed by Donald Eastman), clothe the actors in wonderful period costumes (by Nan Cibula-Jenkins), and fill out the script with songs (by Alaric Jans) featuring lyrics by Shakespeare’s rival Christopher Marlowe, among others. An extended Mack Sennet chase scene further shticks up an already shtick-filled play.

Fortunately Gaines was able to gather a gifted, seasoned cast. In younger and greener hands this everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to Merry Wives could have been a horrible mess. Instead it’s a glorious one. –Jack Helbig