The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is not strictly a review of the book. The play has been around for over 400 years, so anything I say won't make any difference. This is my impression of the play produced by the Great River Shakespeare Festival in Winona, MN last night. Shakespeare's plays were not meant solely to be read. They were meant to be performed. It is in that spirit that I present my thoughts.
First, something about the play. This is, to use modern TV terminology, a spinoff. Reportedly, Queen Elizabeth loved the character of Falstaff in Henry IV Part 1, and asked Shakespeare to write a play centering on Falstaff. The result was this. Don't worry, I'm not giving away anything that's not in the Cliffs Notes. Falstaff arrives in Windsor with no cash. He soon devises a plot to woo Mrs Page and Mrs Ford, the Merry Wives in the title, and then extort them for money. Falstaff makes the mistake, however, of sending the exact same letter to each wife. The wives meet, discover this, and plot to embarrass Falstaff. In addition, Mr Ford, disguised as Brook, wants Falstaff to test his wife's fidelity. I would hilarity ensues here, but I've seen that on the back of too many DVD cases where the hilarity does not ensue. Falstaff winds up hiding in a laundry basket, and then dumped in the River Thames. He also is forced to dress as a woman and it is beaten with a cudgel.
Meanwhile, Anne Page is scheduled to receive a large inheritance when she turns 17. She has 3 suitors for her hand in marriage. The first, Mr Slender, has money but is, in Shakespeare's terms, an "idiot." Her father prefers him. The second, Dr Caius, is a pompous Frenchman. Shakespeare has a lot of fun with his accent. Her mother prefers him. The third, Mr Fenton, has money, is humble, and has his wits about him. Anne prefers him. Mrs Quickly acts as the messenger between Mr Fenton and Anne, as well as between Falstaff and Mrs Ford. The climax is in the forest, where Falstaff wears deer antlers and is poked with hot pokers by children pretending to be fairies. In the end, to quote another Shakespeare play, all's well that ends well. Anne marries Mr Fenton, the Pages and the Fords rekindle their love, and Falstaff observes, "I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass."
The Festival sets this play in the early 1900s, a time of relative peace in the world. The characters don't have to worry about larger geopolitical concerns; they can focus on their own lives. It is a bit ironic, though, that this weekend is the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which set the events in motion that started World War I. The production uses period music to set the scene, with songs such as Bicycle Built for Two (and yes, there is a bicycle built for two in the production) and Moonlight Bay. This definitely adds something to the play. They also add an introduction, letting everyone know who the characters are. They don't shy away from the text. We were all laughing at the appropriate times. It's not that hard to follow along.
The production was excellent. Special commendations go the following actors (if I don't name an actor, it is only for space limitations):
Jonathan Gillard Daly as Falstaff. He plays Falstaff as the buffoon Shakespeare wrote, but with an element of playfulness. I could see him wearing a red suit and carrying a bag of toys. Based on the forest scene, I could also see him blending in with the reindeer. Lol.
Tarah Flanagan as Mrs Ford and Sigrid Sutter as Mrs Page. Their plotting turns this into the Real Housewives of Windsor.
Leslie Brott as Mrs Quickly. She keeps talking and talking, and doesn't know when to shut up. Perfect.
Steve Hendrickson as Mr Ford. His jealousy, especially when he plays Brook, is way over the top.
Jenni McCarthy (no, not the host on The View) as Anne Page. She brings an innocence to the role, oombined with determination to get what she wants.
Christopher Gerson as Pastor Evans. He does the Welsh accent well. He did this last year in Henry V, and it's only improved since then.
And a special note to Andrew Carlson as Dr Caius. His over the top French accent reminds me of Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther movies. He also had the biggest laugh line of the night. He said, in his fake accent, "If there be one, or two, I shall make-a the turd." It took about 5 minutes for everyone in the audience to stop laughing and get on with the play.
All in all an excellent performance. I can see why this play has been around for over 400 years, and the Festival has been around for 11 seasons.
For more information on the Great River Shakespeare Festival, go to www.grsf.org
For more information about Winona, MN, go to www.visitwinona.com.
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