The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare; directed by Tony Simotes
Lying...With Mistress Ford
By J. Peter Bergman
Back in the 1930s there was a particular style of movie comedy known as "screwball." It was a broad, farcical format allowing both the subtle and the sublime to co-exist with the slapstick and the stinkbomb schools of laughter-producing performances. Carole Lombard, Billie Burke, The Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges could all provide laughs side-by-side if required and, though the former two never met up with the latter groups, audiences were equally amused by their films and attendance at their films during the depression often outranked any other form of entertainment.
Director Tony Simotes seems to be a proponent of this school of screwball comedy. In his current production of The Merry Wives of Windsor Simotes has taken these old-time film images a mite too seriously. Merry Wives has always had the elements of screwball comedy: mischievous women lying to their husbands, pretending to want to "lie down" with amorous buffoons, frisky young men, flirtatious, fat old men, scheming servants, self-deluded foreigners. It also has the least number of well-known lines by its author, Shakespeare. You don’t sit around at this play waiting for the well-known sayings. Instead, when you laugh you laugh at situations and that’s more attuned to this production style.
The play takes almost two and a half hours of playing time and with the intermission you need to allow two and three quarters hours. That’s a long time for comedy, but the laughing, and there’s plenty of it in this production, helps.
Sir John Falstaff, at rest in the town of Windsor, decides to pursue two attractive married women, hoping for a little recreation to go with that rest. The two women are friends, are flattered and insulted by this attention from the nobility, and decide to have some fun at the knight’s expense. Add to this a jealous husband convinced that his wife would be unfaithful given the chance, a daughter in love above her station and denying it, suitors galore for that young woman’s hand and dowry, a devilishly greedy widow willing to sell her influence to anyone wanting to purchase it and local legend about a haunted woods and there’s your story.
What really makes a difference, and whether this is to the good of the play or not is anyone’s call, is the character delineations brought to the front by the actors and the director. Garbed in the best Arthur Oliver costumes I’ve seen the twenty-one performers in the company cavort merrily - seemingly never changing their clothes from one day to the next in this story - and bring to mind many movie stars from the peak years of the depression and one more recent farcical master.
Jonathan Croy, as the foreign suitor of Ann Page - Dr. Caius, is as deliciously phony-French and delectably smarmy as in a best performance by Kevin Kline. He murders the accent, then perfects it. He poses, prances, minces and strikes manly postures, sometimes all in the same sentence. He is quirky and delightful and his final encounter with his new bride, perfectly in tune with a modern sensibility. The Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans, as played by Robert Biggs, is so very Barry Fitzgerald in his inflections - as Irish as he is Welsh - that there were moments he became unintelligible.
David Furumoto seems to have been transformed into a Eugene Pallette look-alike, even taking on his inflections but not his gravel-toned voice, in the role of George Page. Frank Ford, played by Michael Hammond, was the least representative of a Hollywood type until he assumed his disguise as Brook and transformed himself into an hysterically funny parody of Raul Julia.
Corinna May’s almost grande-dame characterization as Mistress Page smacked clearly of a Hedda Hopper influence while Elizabeth Aspenlieder’s Mistress Ford was a Carole Lombard clone. Dave Demke made Slender into a vaguely reminiscent fussy Franklin Pangborn and Mel Cobb broke from his written role as Shallow to turn himself briefly into Groucho Marx.
The two character "stars" of this production were Elizabeth Ingram’s nearly perfect Elsa Lanchester version of Mistress Quickly and Malcolm Ingram’s under-the-top Charles Laughton playing Sir John Falstaff.
The rest of the cast, especially Ryan Winkles as Fenton and Katie Zaffrann as Ann Page, were right on the money in their work. All in all, the style of production and performance felt curiously right if occasionally disconcerting when those 20th century film images overtook a character. The play’s sense of tumult reigns and the screwball aspects work because the plot allows this to happen.
There’s a Dibble Dance at the beginning of the play and a choreographic sense about the whole thing aided by Scott Killian’s lovely period music which goes bizarrely Jewish toward the finale. Les Dickert’s lighting is fine, with the exception of the final scene which could have used a bit more mood, perhaps a leaf gobo or something to establish place.
If you’re seated in an aisle seat, keep your feet, elbows, head and handbag out of the passageway. You never know when an actor might clip you. The Merry Wives of Windsor is indeed a merry and exhausting romp with a talented crew doing their best to make it all as easy and recognizable as pie.
◊ 07-02-06 ◊
Elizabeth Ingram as Quickly and Malcolm Ingram as Falstaff; photo: Kevin Sprague
Corinna May and Elizabeth Aspenlieder; photo: Kevin Sprague
Kevin Stanfa as Rugby and Jonathan Croy as Dr. Caius; photo: Kevin Sprague
The Merry Wives of Windsor plays in repertory in the Founders' Theatre at Shakespeare and Co. through September 2. For complete schedule and prices consult their website at www.shakespeare.org. or call the box office at 413-637-3353.