Next week, the ever-popular Shenandoah Shakespeare Express will return to Raleigh to present The Merry Wives of Windsor (Nov. 13) and Love’s Labour’s Lost (Nov. 14) as part of the N.C. State University Center Stage series. During its current “2002 Beguile the Rich Tour,” this youthful but imaginative and resourceful group of traveling players will emphasize the power and beauty of Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare’s language over high-tech special effects.

The Shenandoah Shakespeare Express will perform The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600-01), under the direction of SSE associate artistic director Fred Nelson, and Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594-95), under the direction of guest director Nick Hutchison of the London Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

According to theatrical legend, Shakespeare resurrected that boisterous roly-poly drunkard and all-around rascal Sir John Falstaff, whose pitiful death is reported in Henry V (1599), at the express request of England’s Queen Elizabeth I. Her majesty wanted to see “the fat knight in love,” and the immortal Bard concocted this frisky sex comedy in which the cowardly warrior and one-time boon companion to young Prince Hal (later King Henry V of England) in Henry IV, Part 1 and 2 (1597-98), hilariously, but futilely, tries to seduce two savvy middle-class housewives, who have cleverly banded together to deflect his advances and outwit him.

In the SSE production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, Frank Arrington will play Falstaff, and Vanessa Mandeville Morosco and Jessica Drizd will play Mistress Ford and Mistress Page.

Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of Shakespeare’s sublime early romantic comedies, matches the ascetic youthful King of Navarre (Tyler Woods) and three of his young lords (Paul Fidalgo, Jim Kropa, and Kip Pierson) with the beautiful Princess of France (Vanessa Mandeville Morosco) and three of her ladies-in-waiting (Claire Christie, Jessica Drizd, and Erika Sheffer). Just before these irresistible young ladies arrive, the young men have all foolishly sworn a solemn oath to devote themselves to study and avoid all women. It is a promise that they cannot keep.

Among the motley array of eccentrics who provide comic relief in Love’s Labour’s Lost are the hilarious Spaniard Don Armado (Frank Arrington), the insufferable schoolmaster Holofernes (Paul Fidalgo), and the lusty clown Costard (Kevin Hauver).

The Shenandoah Shakespeare Express is the touring arm of Shenandoah Shakespeare of Staunton, VA. According to an SSE spokesman, the company’s actors and directors must commit to four things: (1) to perform each play in “two hours’ traffic of our stage”; (2) to employ a cast of 12 players, who double roles; (3) to use thrust staging; and (4) to use universal lighting. Indeed, the company’s motto is “We do it with the lights on!”

“[Shenandoah Shakespeare Express productions are] simply fresh, fine theater,” wrote a theater critic for The Boston Globe. “Its combination of intelligence, spirit, and sheer kinetic energy is profoundly exciting. This is pure Shakespeare, richly alive. The play’s indeed the thing, and, thanks to the SSE, what a glorious, vibrant, living thing it is.”

N.C. State University Center Stage presents The Merry Wives of Windsor Wednesday, Nov. 13, at 8 p.m. and Love’s Labour’s Lost Thursday, Nov. 14, at 8 p.m. in Stewart Theatre in NCSU’s Talley Student Center. $20-$25 per play ($16-$20 with NCSU Center Stage series discount) or $30-$37.50 for both ($24-$30 with series discount). 919/515-1100. (inactive 8/03) or