The Merry Wives of Windsor

To TV network suits, the spinoff is a slam dunk: Take a beloved secondary character, drop them in a new environment with wacky sidekicks and watch the advertising revenue roll in. Unfortunately, for every Maude or Good Times, there are a dozen Glorias.

But before you lay all the blame for this madness on Norman Lear, consider Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor. Queen Elizabeth was reportedly so enamored of Falstaff (the rotund rogue of Henry IV Part 1 and Henry IV Part 2: Electric Boogaloo) that she commissioned the Bard to churn out a quickie comedy featuring the errant knight. Thankfully for attendees of Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival's latest production, the result was much more successful than Joey.

The plot — nearly incomprehensible even with a synopsis — revolves around Falstaff's efforts to seduce a pair of middle-class ladies (Anne Hering and Suzanne O'Donnell) while befriending their clueless husbands (Patrick Flick and Philip Nolen). The B-story involves the daughter of one of the merchants (Beth Brown), who is pursued by a trio of ridiculous suitors. This being a comedy, everyone ends up married and laughing instead of dead. Along the way, there are enough slamming doors and cross-dressing disguises to fill two seasons of Three's Company.

Characters appear to have leapt straight out of TV Land: Quickly (Allison DeCaro) sings like Edith Bunker; Host of the Garter (Brad DePlanche) blusters like Taxi-era DeVito; there's even a lisping child who could give elocution lessons to Cindy Brady.

There's so much wacky slapstick that, despite a performance of considerable size and depth, Dan McCleary's Falstaff nearly becomes an extra in his own star vehicle. The supporting cast features OSF heavy hitters like Mark Lainer and Timothy Williams, and everyone handles the low comedy with high style. Also notable is the subtly evolving lighting design: Starting with a bare-bones approximation of Blackfriars (Shakespeare's winter theater), effects are gradually layered in until the fiber-optic climax. Director Jim Helsinger's rapid-fire direction won't leave you aching for a commercial break, and even if the wordplay occasionally flies overhead, it still beats the hell out of 704 Hauser. (7 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, through April 29 at Margeson Theater, Lowndes Shakespeare Center; $25-$35; 407-447-1700, ext. 1;

— Seth Kubersky

The Sopranos

The Sopranos can't end well — and I mean that in every sense except quality.

When the series began its final nine episodes April 8, the authorities were crawling up Tony Soprano's butt (James Gandolfini), and Tony's family members were showing disrespect. And the man himself showed he wasn't as spry as he used to be, particularly after taking a bullet last season.

Sorry to be so cryptic, but if you've seen it, you know what I'm talking about. And if you haven't, you should have a chance to savor and be surprised by every moment.

Last week's episode, "Soprano Home Movies," was almost a stage play captured on film — a good half of it centered around Tony's 47th birthday celebration. On the coming Sunday, April 15, you will see the results of Christopher's (Michael Imperioli) moviemaking, and in an unrelated storyline you'll experience some of the best makeup work ever seen on a TV show.

As the series winds down, the writers are having greater fun than usual with wordplay. "Is this it?" Carmela (Edie Falco) asks in the opening episode when she hears the police banging at the door. "That's the last time I'm going down for the paper!" Tony explodes in episode two, after unannounced guests show up. (Fans know that several seasons started with big-belly Tony waddling down the driveway to retrieve his newspaper.)

Despite year-plus breaks between seasons, The Sopranos has been by far the best drama on television since its 1999 debut — as nuanced as it is violent and as much about interpersonal family dynamics as it is about organized crime. It's never wrapped up the plot lines neatly, and there's no reason to expect that to happen now.

Past seasons have dealt with the miseries of others, but I have a feeling it's the Soprano family's turn. (9 p.m. Sunday, through May 20, on HBO; repeats are shown at various times throughout the following week;

— Marc D. Allan

Say It Loud

The cold, hard fact is that graphic designer Julio Lima has moved his business into a larger building, just a jog down Mills Avenue from where his former studio was located. He plans to run his Say It Loud company out of the front and turn the back warehouse area into a photographer's rental studio as well as accommodating any other purpose that it might be called upon to fill. The proof of intent is evidenced in the wheels fitted on the equipment and furnishings, so that they're ready to be rolled into action — after a couple of coats of white paint and a little more garage cleaning.

But there's so much more represented in the flying of the Say It Loud flag outside the bright-orange-capped corner shop than just a bigger space.

Lima — a UCF grad with 24 years of experience in the graphic design industry, who worked with Push before going his own way — is still pushing the arts scene any way he can (thus the self-given "creative activist" title). When he first settled himself on Mills Avenue in 2004 in a studio he shared with Tom Hope, Lure Design was doing much the same around the corner on Virginia Avenue. The "ViMi Design District" was what they and others like them were unofficially trying to establish, and years later, there has been continued movement in that direction. Amidst the eclectic array of charmingly antiquated shops (Simonet Electronic), eateries (Tony's Deli), drinkeries (Wally's, the Peacock Room), arts-related entrepreneurs are filling up empty spaces. In Lima's case, he was able to purchase his piece of the rock, which was previously occupied by a frame shop, after nearly a year of negotiations.

And that's the beauty and hope for this nook of Orlando — to have private ownerships, unique character, ethnic diversity and creative underpinnings. Where else can you find that in this land of milquetoast and money?

It won't be long before Lima throws an opening party and maybe an art happening of some type — whatever it takes to announce his commitment in addition to that orange roof and his own brass. (Say It Loud, 1121 N. Mills Ave., 407-898-7299;

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