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How many liberties can you take with the Bard?

The Merry Wives of Windsor. Comedy by William Shakespeare. Directed by Timothy Oman for the Riverside Shakespeare Company. Many a liberty has been taken with Shakespeare's plays, but has ''The Merry Wives of Windsor'' ever been stood so roundly on its head?

The place is New Orleans; the year is 1875. Falstaff is a Confederate captain , living in rowdy retirement after the Civil War. Mistress Quickly is a canny Cajun with a weakness for voodoo. The scene of Sir John's ''bewitchment'' has a Mardi Gras flavor. And through it all, the merry cadences of Shakespeare's text take on a fine Louisiana twang.

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Does it work? Not for scholars, maybe, and certainly not for purists. But it's summer, after all, and ''The Merry Wives of Windsor'' isn't exactly ''King Lear.'' In the spirit of his own silliness - often apparent in ''The Merry Wives'' - the Bard himself might have liked this revisionist romp, presented by the Riverside Shakespeare Company on a portable outdoor stage. It certainly whiled away a pleasant evening for me at a park on the East Side of Manhattan, and my preteen companions seemed as captivated as the grown-up spectators around them.

Energy and a sense of the absurd that never quits are what sustain the show, despite its modest resources. On a set not much bigger than he is, the Falstaff careens from pillar to post like a runaway boxcar, ranting his Elizabethan speeches with a thick Dixie drawl. Such key figures as Mistress Quickly and Doctor Caius contribute French-American inflections, lending extra spice to the linguistic stew. The costumes are full-blown, if not fancy, and the most clownish characters - especially Sir John's blowzy henchmen - are enough like walking cartoons to coax a laugh just by showing up.

The director, Timothy Oman, moves the action at a breakneck pace. And his actors keep up every step of the way, which is no mean accomplishment on a hot evening: Outdoor stages aren't air-conditioned like the Broadway kind. Worthy of special mention are Joseph Reed, who makes Falstaff a thoroughly convincing ''good old boy,'' and Anna Deavere Smith, whose Mistress Quickly carries a tantalizing touch of mystery.

Almost everyone else provides capable support for these standout performances , as does the live music concocted by Deena Kaye.

Presented by the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Riverside troupe tour of its ''Merry Wives'' through the five boroughs of New York City terminates Aug. 7 on Staten Island.

Dignified, it's not. But that's where the fun comes in.

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