Last night [November 13], the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express opened its two-night Raleigh, NC run with a thoroughly entertaining production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, performed in just a little over two hours and concluded to a hearty and sustained standing ovation. (The SSE will conclude its portion of the N.C. State University Center Stage series tonight [November 14] with a brisk performance of Elizabethan playwright William Shakespeare’s frisky romantic comedy Love’s Labour’s Lost.)

The Merry Wives of Windsor (1600-01) and Love’s Labour’s Lost (1594-95), both performed as part of the Shenandoah Shakespeare Express’ “2002 Beguile the Rich Tour,” showcase the talents of an impressive array of (mostly) young performers who underscore the power and beauty of Shakespeare’s language by performing in simple but timeless costumes, some suggesting Elizabethan fashions, others decidedly modern in origin. The SSE performs all of its repertoire in approximately two hours; and these terrific traveling players employ a minimum of scenery and special effects while performing — and actively interacting with the audience — on a thrust stage under universal lighting. Indeed, the troupe’s motto is: “We do it with the lights on!”

The Merry Wives of Windsor, written (according to legend) at the express request of England’s Queen Elizabeth I, cheerfully resurrects that great fat amorous drunken rascal Sir John Falstaff, a sometime soldier and a charming ruffian who served as a surrogate father to Prince Hal (later King Henry V) and provided comic relief in Henry IV, Part 1 and 2 (1597-98). Falstaff’s pitiful (offstage) death is reported in Henry V (1599).

When Shakespeare acquiesced to his queen’s request to show “the fat knight in love,” he concocted an intricate plot in which the lusty knave (played with great control and understatement for SSE by Frank Arrington) simultaneously pursues two handsome and well-to-do Windsor housewives, who secretly band together to thwart his every advance and thoroughly humiliate Falstaff before the entire town.

Frank Arrington’s Falstaff, unlike many Falstaffs we have known, is no bellower and certainly no scenery chewer. Arrington takes a subtler approach to this plum role and, consequently, milks every laugh out of the randy old goat’s ridiculous romantic predicament.

Vanessa Mandeville Morosco and Jessica Drizd, who play Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, respectively, provide perfect foils for Falstaff. They lead him on and on and on, until they expose and embarrass him before the whole population.

Kevin Hauver and Jim Kropa give gritty performances as Masters Ford and Page, the respective husbands whom Falstaff would cuckold. Hauver is especially funny as Ford, who barely suppresses his outrage and pretends to befriend the overconfident Falstaff as “Brook,” another unsuccessful rival for the affections of Mistress Ford.

Hauver’s monkeyshines as Brook and Erika Sheffer’s shenanigans (in drag) as the garrulous Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans, provide some of the funniest moments in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Kip Pierson is also excellent as the disapproving keeper of the inn where the fat knight and his confederates (the delightful trio of Tyler Woods as Bardolph, Morosco as Pistol, and Drizd as Nym) make merry day and night and shamelessly fleece their fellow travelers.

Eric C. Bailey is a scream as the pugnacious Popeye-like Justice Shallow; and Paul Fidalgo tickles the audience’s funny bone with his outrageous antics as Slender, sometime (but never very enthusiastic) suitor to Anne Page (the lovely and charming Joann Sacco). Woods is also quite good as Anne’s handsome true love Fenton, and Sacco is a scream as the thin-skinned and hot-tempered French physician Dr. Caius.

Kip Pierson (in drag) is a cutup who steals many a scene with his impish impersonation of Mistress Quickly the meddlesome housekeeper to Dr. Caius, but Paul Fidalgo steals the show with the rock-and-roll riffs that he injects into his role as a traveling Musician who plays a mean guitar.

Last night, The Merry Wives of Windsor, under the smart and stylish direction of SSE associate artistic director Fred Nelson, was hitting on all comic cylinders. This high-octane production, which catapulted the audience to its feet at the final curtain, was superlatively staged by Nelson and assistant director Joyce Pfeifer, with ample assists from costume designer Kimberly G. Martin and music directors Paul Fidalgo and Erika Sheffer.

The Shenandoah Shakespeare Express, which is the touring arm of Shenandoah Shakespeare of Staunton, VA, is a regular participant in the theatrical portion of the NCSU Center Stage series. Don’t miss the rare opportunity tonight to see this superb company of Shakespearean actors and actresses tackle the zany array of love-struck lords and ladies and loony local eccentrics that make Love’s Labour’s Lost one of Shakespeare’s funniest comedies.

N.C. State University Center Stage presents 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). 919/515-1100. (inactive 8/03) or