Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Merry Wives of Windsor - Great Lakes Theater

At GLTF, ‘MERRY WIVES’ are merry, but....

When the name Shakespeare is invoked, most Americans, having been exposed mainly to his tragedies, such as ‘HAMLET’ and ‘MACBETH’ think of such terms as “abstract,” “difficult to understand” and “academic.”
That image of Shakespeare and his works is basically wrong. Shakespeare was, or so it is recounted, a rebel for his time. He was a playwright for the common people. Many of his plays are bawdy and filled with sexual innuendoes. His comedies have a great deal of farcical undertones and lend themselves to broad interpretation. ‘THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR,’ now in production at the Great Lakes Theatre
(Shakespeare) Festival, is a case in point.

Upon entering the Ohio Theatre, you will quickly realize that this is not your traditional Shakespearean production. The audience is confronted with an orange and teal Howard Johnson motel. As the play, under Sari Ketter’s direction proceeds, we are hit with more “non-Shakespearean” effects and doings. Pop music from the 50s is used for transitions as the sets are changed by a crew of Howard Johnson waitstaff. Costumes are from the same era. One of the lead characters, resembles Elvis Presley complete with DA haircut, jeans with rolled cuffs, and white t-shirt with a pack of cigarettes rolled into the sleeve. Another is a Marilyn Monroe knock-off complete with white dress and halter top which is ready to fly over her head if she passes over an air-shaft. It doesn’t take long to realize that thisis going to be a no-holds barred, over-the-top farcical attack on the Bard of Avon’s work.

‘THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR’ is often termed a bourgeois comedy. Many critics consider it to be one of Shakespeare's weaker plays, mainly because he has taken Falstaff, the superbly developed character of the two Henry IV plays, and made him as a lesser character. In addition, the writing is more visual image than the usual Shakespearean language-centered plays. It is also theorized that the play was quickly written when the Bard was commissioned to scribe a piece in early April of 1597 for The Garter Festival in honor of Queen Elizabeth I, which was staged the third week of April. Interestingly, the plot may have been prescribed by Queen Elizabeth, a great theatre goer, who wanted to see Falstaff in love.

The play’s story line places Sir John Falstaff, a conniving lecher, in Windsor with the intent of improving his financial lot by courting Mistresses Ford and Page, two wealthy married women, . These "merry wives" are not interested in the aging, overweight Falstaff as a suitor, but for the sake of their own amusement pretend to respond to his proposals. At one point, Falstaff is forced to hide in a laundry basket which is then thrown into the river.
In another instance, he is forced to dress in women’s clothing to avoid being caught in his scheme. As in all of Shakespeare’s comedies, all’s well that ends well. Falstaff is exposed as the fool he is, young love wins out and the merry wives are destined to live happily ever after.

As has been the case since Charles Fee became the Artistic Director at GLFT, comedy means exaggerated farce. Fee loves to hear audiences laughing. He obviously has a partner in Sari Ketter, who directs with a manic intensity that would make the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges happy. Many of the gimmicks work, others do not. After a while some of the shticks become tedious, such as the overly choreographed set changes. On the other hand, the audience does have a good time. Whether it has anything to do with the script’s intent or not is obviously irrelevant. As evidenced by the preteens sitting in our row who were hysterical, children will love the slapstick so this production might be a good way to introduce them to the joys of Shakespeare.

The cast is right in sync with Ketter. No one mumphers, phumphers and makes frog like eye pops like Andrew May. He is given many opportunities to be the Andrew we know-and-love as Master Ford, the jealous husband. Kathryn Cherasaro and Lynn Allison are wonderful as Mistresses Ford and Page. Skinny and gangling Jeff Cribbs makes for the perfect geek as Master Slender, a reluctant wooer of Anne Page. Tom Weaver is his equal as his spindly-legged companion. Gum chewing Nina Domingue, complete with “New Yawk” squealing accent, is delightful as the nosey housekeeper.

In this production that knows no boundaries, Paul Kiernban’s underplaying of Falstaff was off-setting. His belly and clothing were funny, but his characterization often goes astray. Nicholas Koesters as Master Fenton, who is the final victor in the wooing of Anne Page, has difficulty maintaining his Elvis/cool guy sound and mannerisms. Marc Moritz overdoes the accent of Dr. Caius to the extent that he is often impossible to understand.

Capsule Judgment Director Sari Ketter’s interpretation of ‘THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR’ is not for everyone. If you are willing to put aside your thoughts of what Shakespeare should be, and will yourself (pardon the pun) to just sit back and accept that this isn’t the traditional format, or that many of the shticks and gimmicks don’t completely work, you’ll enjoy yourself. If you don’t like slapstick, and are a Shakespeare purist, stay home.