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According to theatrical lore, Queen Elizabeth commanded William Shakespeare to write a farce showcasing the bloated buffoon Sir John Falstaff.

Three cheers for Queen Bess, who in her wisdom commissioned the side-splitting comedy, "The Merry Wives of Windsor," the third and final offering at this summer's Illinois Shakespeare Festival.

Falstaff arrives in Windsor, broke. He is being pursued by Justice Shallow, to whom Falstaff owes a bundle. Falstaff schemes to prey on two well-heeled wives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, believing that they will succumb to his charms and he will gain access to their fortunes.

Kathy Logelin as Mistress Page and Demetria Thomas as Mistress Ford are hilarious, and so exquisitely "girly" as they handily dupe Falstaff into believing they return his ardor.

Master Ford learns of Falstaff's plans and fears his wife is unfaithful. Kareem Bandealy as Master Ford gives an unforgettable performance as the outraged and suspicious husband. There is also competition among three gentlemen for the hand of Mistress Page's daughter Anne.

Adroitly played by Drew Vidal is a wealthy idiot, and Dr. Caius, each individually have the support of Anne's parents. But Anne has made her own choice in the young suitor Fenton.

Set in the 1920s, costume designer Rachel Laritz delights the eye with shimmering turquoise chemises, clothing that literally lights up and dapper gentlemen's attire.

Scenic designer Fred M. Duer's street side set looks like a winsome watercolor painting that somehow lost its way to the gallery and found its way to the stage.

Directed by Catherine Weidner, the pace is brisk, the comedy physical. The audience was literally whooping on opening night. Max Ganet as Simple, Magdalyn Donnelly as Mistress Quickly and Gerson Dacanay as Dr. Caius were each audience favorites.

But "Merry Wives" is all about more Falstaff, and this production doesn't disappoint. With George Judy in full command of that role, this is a show not to be missed.

Marcia Weiss is a freelance writer who reviews plays for The Pantagraph.

Merry Wives of Windsor

Venue: Illinois Shakespeare Festival at Ewing Manor, Bloomington

Times and dates: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, July 27 and Aug. 4; 8 p.m. Saturday, July 30 and Aug. 7

Cost: $18 to $42

Running time: 2 hr. 20 min., including 15-min. intermission

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