at the Great Hall, Plummer Park

Free Shakespeare played outdoors is a great way to divert us from thoughts of gas prices and the economy. And this particular play puts us on the road toward that goal, offering none of the playwright's grimly tragic or sweepingly romantic narratives, just farcical situations and bawdy laughs that evoke a 500-year-old version of Noises Off. Henry IV's pal Sir John Falstaff is here reduced to gluttonous buffoonery as his scheme to shake funds from the stuffed codpieces of local merchants by seducing their wives backfires when the ladies devise a plan to bring him the humiliation he so roundly deserves.

Although updating the Bard to modern times often delivers disastrous results, director Carey Upton has cleverly chosen to transport the townsfolk of merry old Windsor directly onto Wisteria Lane as it might have been during the 1950s, effecting the style—and the antics—of Lucy and Ethel. Unfortunately, this potentially inspired concept never goes much beyond Erin Tanaka's whimsical costuming, about the only aspect reflecting the glaring excesses of mid-20th century Americana. A bit of bee-bop or a cleverly placed early '50s TV set might have inspired the rejuvenation of the piece, but even that wouldn't be enough without a unifying vision to make it all coalesce.

The cast is uniformly game and obviously talented, but Upton lets each actor fly with abandon into whatever style suits his or her individual experience and comfort zone. Joseph Hulser's Falstaff is surprisingly introspective and subdued, devoid of any of the usual butt-scratching or random vulgarities to define his coarsely comedic character. Others are broadly playing to the back galleries at Stratford, mugging and overexaggerating to the point of distraction—including, from some veteran ensemble members who should know better, exits embracing everything but Cirque du Soleil–style somersaults to wrench focus from where it should stay. One ultimately wonders why these townsfolk would find Falstaff so offensive, especially as the wives are played as such Katzenjammer cartoons that the play's customary theme of repulsion might work better if everything were played in reverse. If Upton had indeed attempted something that daring, he might have really had something here.

Presented by Classical Theatre Lab and the City of West Hollywood at the Great Hall in Plummer Park, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood. Sat.-Sun. 5 p.m. Jul. 19-Aug. 3. Also at West Hollywood Park, 647 N. San Vicente Blvd., West Hollywood. Sat.-Sun. 5 p.m. Aug. 9-24. (323) 960-5691. www.classicaltheatrelab.org.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder