5/8/2022 THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse
FALSTAFF IN RUT
(Sloth Alert: Those of you with ridiculously eidetic memories may recognize most of this as a blatant plagiarizing of my review of the Tavern’s 2012 production. My only defense is that it’s been ten years and that review is probably difficult to find online. Still, since most of it was “template” background on the play itself, so why not?)
I have a strained and strange relationship with The Merry Wives of Windsor. I was part of a production a (large) number of years ago that challenged both patience and good will and was seen by few and remembered by none. Shortly after that, I faintly smiled through a Georgia Shakespeare production that made me forget, if fleetingly, the recent death of someone near and dear.
Still and all, it’s a play I truly love, one that lets Shakespeare wallow in his own Middle-Class peers rather than the princes and paupers we’re used to seeing him over-inflate. It’s filled with character and caricature, wiles and whimsy, jealousy and cheekiness, buck-baskets and bottom-feeders. In short, it is a delightful trifle that never fails to amuse.
(Digression Alert: Did you know that Merry Wives is the ONLY play in the canon set in Elizabethan England? #TheMoreYouKnow)
Yes, Merry Wives is gossamer-thin, lighter than air, and about as serious as the Marx Brothers contemplating Margaret Dumont’s bosom. Legend has it that it was written in fourteen days at the express request of Queen Elizabeth I, and scholars have been dumping on it ever since. It is over 80% prose, and has little of the soaring language Shakespearean addicts such as myself long to lose ourselves in.
But Preston Sturges was right. Sometimes, an airy comedy is just what is needed, just what can give you a grip on your sanity, just what you want to give you the strength to face what lurks outside the theatre doors. It was just what I needed when I spent most of 2001 messing it up, just what I needed in 2002 when I was in deep mourning, just what I needed in 2012 when ... whatever was happening then was happening (who can remember?), just what I need in 2022 when life is throwing little at me I can’t blithely smile away.
So, to summarize, we have the return of Sir John Falstaff, the bellicose, belly-quivering knight from the Henry IV plays, this time in lust with the comely wives of two Windsor merchants. Appalled at his assault on their good character, they conspire to give the lecherous knight his come-uppance, creating a whimsical and merry romp that leads Falstaff under the river and into the woods, donning a set of antlers to actually become his “stag in full rut” for the entire village to see and to mock. Throw in some standard sub-plots involving true love and fortune-hunting and poor parental match-making and every other comedic trope Shakespeare had developed by this point in his career, and what’s not to like?
This production at the Shakespeare Tavern is a delight from beginning to end. From the traditional Tudor stage set to the joyous merriment of Kelly Criss and Peyton Johnson as the wives, to the raving jealousy of Sean Kelley as Master Ford, to Vinnie Mascola’s larger-than-life-Falstaff, to the fractured English of Gracie Wallace’s Evans and Chris Hecke’s Caius and Alejandra Ruiz’s Mistress Quickly (*), to the bonhomie of Mila Bolash’s Host, to the hysterical cluelessness of Evan Judway’s Slender -- everything conspired to make me smile, even laugh. If the Fenton and Anne love story came across as the least interesting aspect of the story this time (again), I didn’t especially care, since the whole affair was just so durn pleasant. I especially liked the decision to cast without respect to gender identity, which made for a profoundly funny bit when one of the “boys” was revealed to be played by a not-so-much-male actor. So kudos to director Kati Grace Brown for some inspired staging and casting choices that made this old and familiar story seem fresh and new.
So, you may criticize Merry Wives for not being as deep or as poetic or as weighty as other works in Shakespeare’s comedic canon. You may puzzle at its lack of princes or villains, or its constant allusions to Elizabethan “Humors” Theory. You may be appalled at the “body shaming” directed at Falstaff by our heroines. You may even quibble that it finds lechery and unrestrained jealousy faster fodder for our entertainment appetite than love and virtue. But you won’t be able to ignore its joyous passion, its rabidly appealing ribaldry, or its full-frontal assault on your funny bone.
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #ShakespeareTavernPlayhouse #MerryWives)
(*) For the record, with all the accents running amok in this production, I did notice (and was totally amused by) the lack of very proper middle-class British accents.