Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July, 2006
I usually hate to go out on Saturday night because then I miss my Brit-coms on PBS, Tony Simotes colorful and hilarious production of The Merry Wives of Windsor more than made up for my loss. Merry Wives is the ultimate Brit-com, and Benny Hill would have approved of this lively production of Shakespeare’s raucous farce.
Merry Wives is seldom produced and considered by many to be among the Bard’s lesser plays. In fact, Merry Wives is so completely different from anything else Shakespeare wrote that I am not sure the academic community knows where to fit it in the canon. It is among those Shakespearean plays that no one ever tells you about in school. I had no idea until I was well along in middle age that Shakespeare had written a farce (“Merry Wives”) or a play about Joan of Arc (Henry VI, Part I). It has been Shakespeare & Company that has opened my eyes to these exciting theatrical treasures, for which I am eternally grateful.
This summer, in a pared down season produced almost entirely on one stage, Shakespeare & Company very deliberately elected to present the Bard’s greatest tragedy – Hamlet – and his silliest comedy – Merry Wives – on the theory that everyone was bound to like one or the other. Well, I liked both, because sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. Although, come to think of it, Jason Asprey’s Hamlet is far nuttier than Malcolm Ingram’s Falstaff on many occasions.
The plot of any farce is way too complicated to explain in its entirety. Suffice it to say that Sir John Falstaff (Malcolm Ingram) comes to Windsor and devises a scheme to woe two wealthy matrons of that town – Mistress Page (Corinna May) and Mistress Ford (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) – in order to get hold of their husband’s money. It does not take those two ladies long to figure out that they have received identical mash notes and to come up with several plots to get their revenge. Falstaff’s renegade servants Pistol (Seth Powers) and Nym (Tanya Dougherty) inform Master Ford (Michael Hammond) and Master Page (David Furomoto) that their wives are being sought for lecherous purposes, a prospect Page laughs off, but which sends Ford into a jealous rage. Disguising himself as a man named Brook, a cross between Zorro and Captain Jack Sparrow, Ford tries to double cross the double crossers and catch his wife with Falstaff, but to no avail. In a secondary plot three suitors are vying for the hand of the Pages’ daughter Anne (Katie Zaffrann) – an outrageous Frenchman, Doctor Caius (Jonathan Croy); a foppish idiot, Abraham Slender (Dave Demke); and the young, handsome, and dashing Master Fenton (Ryan Winkles). Anne, logically, favors Fenton, but her father will have her marry no one but Slender while her mother will see her wed to no one but the Doctor.
Skirting around the edges of all this excitement are Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson, (Robert Biggs) who at one point gets himself involved in a duel with Dr. Caius; and Mistress Quickly (Elizabeth Ingram), who is theoretically the Doctor’s housekeeper but who sells her services as go-between to just about everyone else in town. Robert Shallow, Slender’s uncle (Mel Cobb), lobbies hard for his nephew to win the hand (and ample dowry) of Ann Page. In the servants quarters John Rugby (Kevin Stanfa) waits on Dr. Caius, Peter Simple (Stephen Unwin) attends on Slender, and little Robin (Laurie Baron) does Falstaff’s bidding.
There is no question that the Falstaff of Merry Wives is a lesser literary creation than the Falstaff of King Henry IV Parts I & II. He is more vain and self-absorbed, and it is hard to believe that that earlier Sir John would really be so thoroughly duped by the Merry Wives three times in a row. If Falstaff was companion to the 15th century Prince Hal, how came he to 17th century Windsor, especially since is death is announced in Act II, Scene III of King Henry V?
Here we need to understand the word “Falstaff” to mean “a funny fat guy” and not the same fascinating fellow who nearly led the future Henry V down the primrose path to perdition.
I was surprised when I saw in the first publicity stills that Malcolm Ingram would be playing Falstaff. While Simotes said he was his first choice, he would not have been mine for two reasons. One, he’s a tall skinny guy, a physical condition that is amply in evidence in Enchanted April where he appears wearing only a towel. And two, he’s just so, well, British, the very embodiment of the stiff-upper-lip-pip-pip-and-cheerio British gentleman. This is not to say that Malcolm Ingram cannot be funny, but that he is more John Cleese than Geoffrey Hughes (that very funny fellow who plays Onslow on “Keeping Up Appearances,” now there’s a bloke I’d like to see as Falstaff!)
So it took a while for me to accept this upper class twit in a fat suit as Sir John Falstaff. Despite costume designer Arthur Oliver’s monumental efforts, Mr. Ingram only looks fat from the neck down, which is slightly comical in itself. But Simotes and Mr. Ingram have a clear grasp on who Falstaff is and how they want to play him, and the end result is the consistent portrait of a gentle ass, so self-absorbed that he neither sees nor grasps how the world actually perceives him.
Aspenlieder and May are just glorious as those Merry Wives. Both are luminous beauties, May clad all in shades of peach and Aspenlieder in sky blue and buttercup yellow. May plays the more centered and devious Mistress Page while Aspenlieder is the more excitable Mistress Ford. You can see why Master Ford is jealous of his wife, and you wonder why Master Page isn’t just as green-eyed. These are two beautiful, clever, and spirited women.
An actor who surprised me was Hammond, who is just hilarious as the insanely jealous Master Ford. In his Zorro disguise, as he burrows to the bottom of the laundry hamper spewing its contents liberally over the audience, as he leaps fruitlessly from a trap door in the stage…he had me in stitches.
As Slender, Demke has created a monstrous fop, who constantly prances in a painful constipated manner in a costume festooned with pink bows. Simotes has set this Merry Wives in the Caroline Period 1625-1649, when, as he says, the men were prettier than the women. Demke’s Slender is the very fairest of them all, and so hopelessly effeminate that you wonder why Master Page finds him in any way a suitable match for his Anne.
I expect nothing less than hilarity from Croy, who spent three seasons goofing it up in The Compleat Wrks of Wllm. Shkspr. (Abridged). Here he employs an outrageous French accent and a variety of wigs, one of which makes him look exactly like Shakespeare himself. His early scene with Mistress Quickly and Jack Rugby as they try to conceal Simple in the Doctor’s closet is a scream.
And speaking of Elizabeth Ingram, she plays a delightful busybody. She gets a wonderfully funny scene with her husband where they assume various compromising positions as Quickly assists Falstaff with his boots. The fact that they are married in real life and obviously having great fun together on stage is a special bonus. And, tricked out in an elaborate costume, she gets to be the centerpiece of Falstaff’s final debasement.
Merry Wives is full of bad ethnic jokes. It is no surprise to hear the British make fun of the French, and vice versa, but the scathing anti-Welsh jokes that Biggs endures come as a surprise. In these peaceful days of a more or less United Kingdom on the British Isles it is easy to forget how long and hard fought were the battles which brought England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and the outlying islands together. Owen Glendower (more properly Owain Glyndwr) the last Welshman to bear the title Prince of Wales, appears in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part I. Formal recognition of Wales’ union with England was only made in 1536, less than a century before Merry Wives was probably written. Throughout the reign of Elizabeth I, the Welsh still clung to dreams of regaining their independence.
In the minor role of John “Jack” Rugby, Stanfa is a stand-out. And he looks great in a dress, a fact that does not escape Croy’s Dr. Caius at the play’s end. Baron also makes a lively page, and uses her petite stature to escape from many a master’s rath.
Scenic and costume design have been limited this season by the persistent use of the Founder’s Theatre for four of Shakespeare & Company’s five major offerings. Everything needs to be flexible enough to be changed over with an hour or so, and by those standards Edward Check’s design for Merry Wives is positively huge. The front of the balcony has been faced with faux Tudor panels to make the Founders’ feel more Elizabethan. Quite a bit of furniture and a multitude of props make their way on and off stage with alacrity. Les Dickert’s lighting design is bright and cheerful until the final moonlit scene in the forest when enough atmospheric gloom pervades to allow Dr. Caius and Abraham Slender to remain unaware that their “brides” are men.
Oliver’s costumes are sumptuous. His juxtaposition of colors and textures are beautiful. The massive costume Mr. Ingram wears, which contains all of Falstaff’s bulk, is a great work of art, allowing Mr. Ingram a full range of movement, which he needs as Falstaff is required to squeeze into a laundry hamper, tear through the theatre in drag, and be repeatedly pinched by “fairies” before the night is out.
There is some bawdy humor involved – this is a farce about Sir John Falstaff, after all – but kids see and hear worse on TV and in the movies. I see no reason why children 10 and up can’t enjoy this show. The only reason I would exclude younger children is the show’s three-hour run time.
The Merry Wives of Windsor runs in repertory through September 2 in the Founders’ Theatre at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, MA. The show runs three hours and is suitable for ages 10 and up. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2006