Shakespeare Theatre Company The Merry Wives of WindsorBy Genie Baskir • Jun 19th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall, Washington, D.C.
Through July 15th
3 hours with one 15 minute intermission
Reviewed June 17th, 2012
That corpulent time traveler, Sir John Falstaff is back; this time in post World War I England. He began his mythical career in service to Henry IV in two of William Shakespeare’s histories covering the early 1400’s, give or take. Sir John took an Einsteinian leap into the future appearing in the contemporaneous The Merry Wives of Windsor, published in the very early 17th century. Now he’s back in the year 1919, returning from battle in World War I to an England that won the war but might lose the peace.
And thus we have Shakespeare Theatre Company’s current production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the 2012 regional Tony Award winning adaptation, whose screwball comic events transpire in 1919 as English women get full voting privileges. Director Stephen Rayne combines a splendid cast, marvelous set and consummate technical direction to present a fine night of entertainment with lots of laughs; generating a new respect outside the academy for a good Shakespearean laugharama.
Sir John Falstaff (David Schramm) returns from the war to an England in the throes of financial and social difficulties. His fortunes declining, his reduced financial circumstances bring him to plot to subvert the marriage of either one of two respectable, but youthful, matrons in the hope of either achieving a rebound on a handsome divorce settlement or a husbandly bribe to just go away. What he doesn’t figure into the scheme is that the two matrons in question will collude to turn the tables on him and use him to their own ends. What’s remarkable in this plot is that these fine women take no offense at Fallstaff’s epistolary advances; they just want to have some fun and grins at the masher’s expense.
Mistress Page (Veanne Cox) is secure in her marriage and her husband’s affections. Their equanimous union has but one little wrinkle. Master (Kurt Rhoads) and Mistress Page are in disagreement over which suitor will marry their daughter, Anne (Alyssa Gagarin), who stands to inherit an impressive estate from her grandfather. Mistress Ford (Caralyn Kozlowski) is secure in her marriage even if Master Ford (Michael Mastro) is not and this is where the comic games begin.
The tattered and burly Falstaff grossly overestimates his attractions to the fairer sex and comically anticipates lascivious interludes with the lovely Mistress Ford and relates his escapades to Master Ford, not knowing that his new acquaintance is, in fact, his desired paramour’s husband. In the meantime, the two wives are luring Falstaff into false trysts that turn out to be unpleasant hazings of the conniving and worn old man. Schramm and Mastro are comic masters as each man is hoist on each respective petard. Cox and Kozlowski are beautiful and clever and in control of every situation they find themselves in. In the contemporary Merry Wives, it is thought that Mistress Page was a stand in for Queen Elizabeth I and Cox does bear an uncanny resemblance to the Virgin Queen. Kozlowski is sexy without being trashy as she lures Falstaff with her fraudulent entreaties of love. It has not been often in fictional history that two women of identical social class worked together instead of against one another and triumph together. Could The Merry Wives of Windsorbe the progenitor of Chick Lit? What about feminine power? The wives triumph without their husbands’ agency and young Anne is in charge of her own agency as she gets the husband that both parents agree they do not want for her. The epoch of a never married woman as monarch, though an historical anomaly, augured in an age that would, unfortunately, not ever be seen again.
The cast includes a trio of comic suitors for the lovely Anne Page, who is in love with Fenton (Mark J. Sullivan) an intimate of the Prince of Wales; while her father prefers she marry the simpering Slender (Michael Keyloun) and her mother sees the mincing Dr. Caius (Tom Story) as the path to son-in-law bliss. Mistress Quickly (Amy Hohn), housekeeper to the hilariously self-absorbed Dr. Caius, is the linchpin around whom the various plots revolve and it is she who, to her master’s detriment, sees to the ordained marriage for Anne, culminating in a lavish woodland forest scene straight out the Forest of Arden in As You Like It. And no screwball comedy, classic literature or not, would be complete without our hefty hero dressed in full drag regalia as he tries to escape from detection by the seemingly cuckolded husband bursting in on a love nest that exists solely in the minds of these two men.
This production is sublime in every way with the contemporary music (John Gromada) of the era taking us back to another epoch. The female costumes are absolutely gorgeous (Wade Laboissonniere), especially Mistress Ford’s high fashions of the Women’ Suffrage era. The set design (Daniel Lee Conway) and the consequent scene transitions were magical as rooms and settings kept appearing and disappearing as necessary. The gorgeous lighting (Thom Weaver) and the competent sound (John Gromada) are component parts of a perfect whole making a night at the theatre into an event. The high era of Art Nouveau is captured to perfection in the family parlors and the elements of the nascent Arts Decoratif period are evident as these aspirational families climb up to the higher reaches of the social order; while Falstaff’s environs indicate his descent in that same order.
Schramm has a sort of Peter Ustinov cast to himself and he is a comic actor non pareil. His nuances and his funny noises and his lusty gurglings galvanized the audience to suspend belief in the plots and japes at hand. His inflated opinions of his own allure and his belief in his appeal to settled women become even more humorous as the two merry wives lead him down a path to humiliation and ignominy. Cox is humorous and brainy and Kozlowski is lovable as she copes with an insecure hubby in high dudgeon over suspected, but truly nonexistent cuckoldry. Mastro is a picture of pique and vexation as he contemplates his wife’s betrayal and inadvertently contributes to the misunderstandings at hand. His divine physicality in the face of public humiliation and private failure convey the issue of male honor in an age of swordsmanship as analogy to manhood.
The three suitors of Anne Page display their comic quirks to great effect and Story is particularly fussy and prissy as the French doctor whom Mistress Page would have as a son-in-law. The ensemble cast of young children brings realism and more warmth to the tone of the show. The rest of the cast including Fallstaff’s man servants ably play their roles to satisfaction, especially James Konicek as Pistol.
The peerless physicality of the high emotions of the characters stands in support of the comic verse and the situational ethicality of the principals. It seems that Shakespeare’s very merry wives inaugurate not just the 17th century, but are the genesis of a genre soon to be epitomized by the likes of the Ricardos and the Mertzes. The history of the Merry Wives is the history of the dirty laundry hamper in which countless extramarital roues have hidden to avoid detection when they aren’t dressing up as women to escape discovery.
Altogether, The Merry Wives of Windsor is superior theatre. Go see it; it’s better than TV.
A note from the Director
There is a great deal of conjecture about when The Merry Wives of Windsor was written. According to one school of thought, the play was written for Elizabeth I’s Garter Feast, held at Westminster Palace in 1597. In the play, Falstaff belongs to the Order of the Garter, and the order’s chivalric motto is quoted at the end of the play. There is also a theory that the play was written years later, in 1602, when a Quarto bearing the play’s second, longer title appeared: The Most Pleasant and Conceited Comedy of Sir John Falstaff and The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Along with a number of scholars I believe the play is actually two plays, joined together later. Shakespeare probably wrote a masque for the 1597 Garter Feast, which survives in acts 4 and 5. These two acts are written mainly in verse, while the rest of the play is in prose. This part was probably written around 1602, most likely to capitalize on the success of the characters of Falstaff and his followers, who were made famous in the Henry IV and Henry V plays. Merry Wives is unique, the only play of Shakespeare’s to be set in his own contemporary society. It is a world in which the economic imperative is never far from the surface, one where subterfuge driven by greed is the accepted norm.
There’s another theory, that Queen Elizabeth commissioned Shakespeare to write a play for her depicting “Falstaff in love.” Now, anybody who has read the play knows that only a small part of the play is about love, and Falstaff’s attempts on the merry wives have precious little to do with it!
The play is not really about Falstaff in love, but Falstaff in the poorhouse. By the late 1590s, England was close to being bankrupt. Since Elizabeth had assumed the throne in 1558, the country had been at war with Spain and Portugal. In 1594, England became embroiled in another war with Ireland, which didn’t end until 1603. These wars drained the finances of the exchequer, and Elizabeth was forced to grant favors to members of her court in return for their support. It was a gravy time for those at court. But for the ordinary man in the street, taxes had gone up, and the quality of life had gone down. The England that soldiers were returning to at the end of the century was very different than the one of the 1570s and 1580s.
Those decades had marked the Age of Discovery. Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake and others had plundered gold-laden Spanish galleons in the name of war. But they had also begun trading with the New World and the Far East, returning with great riches and a whole new vocabulary. It’s no accident that Falstaff makes reference in this play to Guiana, as well as to the East and West Indies, as part of his get-rich-quick schemes. All of a sudden, anybody, not just those born into the royalty, could make their fortune through trade.
Adventurers such as Drake and Raleigh were emblematic of a rising middle-class which was transforming England. Between 1500 and 1600, the population of London grew 400 percent, from less than 50,000 to more than 200,000. More than half of the population of England was under 25 years old, and many of them would become more prosperous many times over than their parents’ generation.
Merry Wives is built around these two new social types of Elizabethan society. Destitute soldiers and knights had returned from war to find an England in which it was difficult to earn a penny. Meanwhile, the rising merchant and middle classes were earning the money previously reserved for the now withered aristocracy. Falstaff and his followers, rather than being in love, are forced to cheat and lie to make a living, with predictably farcical results. The Fords and the Pages, on the other hand, are characters we recognize as being rather like us. They are married couples from middle-class homes, who only want the very best for themselves and their children.
All of this brings me to our production. We’re setting the play at the end of the First World War, which I believe offers a vibrant window into the social world of the play and makes it more accessible to a modern audience. In 1919, just as 300 years before, England was a bankrupt, postwar country, in which soldiers returning from the battlefield found themselves displaced by a rising middle class; in 1919, the British Empire was still at its zenith. In the late 16th century, it was just getting started. The two periods bookend each other in a way, and throw light on the quintessential Englishness of this comedy.
Falstaff, the title character of the 1602 version of the play, and the “merry wives,” who are given prominence in the Folio, are all English. But they come from different social worlds, and they regard each other from either side of a great cultural and historical divide. Falstaff represents the Old World, and Shakespeare is quite hard on the fat old knight in this play, almost as if he knows that the post-Restoration stage will gravitate to tales of merry wives. Mistresses Ford and Page, meanwhile, are wise, powerful and independent, created very much in Elizabeth’s image. And they are surrounded by a rich panoply of characters who delineate the many aspects of the English experience. You could make a good argument, in fact, that The Merry Wives stages modern English society for the first time, while depicting the twilight of an earlier age.
The twilight of the First World War is perhaps the earliest date at which our contemporary version of English identity emerges. In fact, the early 20th century is when the House of Windsor itself came into being. In 1917, King George V changed the name of the English monarchy from its original German surname. Lucky for us: “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” just doesn’t have the same ring.
Photos by Scott Suchman
- Robert Shallow: Jarlath Conroy
- Abraham Slender: Michael Keyloun
- Peter Simple: Matthew McGee
- Fenton: Mark J. Sullivan
- Sir Hugh Evans: Floyd King
- Doctor Caius: Tom Story
- Mistress Quickly: Amy Hohn
- John Rugby: Michael Gregory
- Host: Jimmy Kieffer
- Sir John Fallstaff: David Schramm
- Bardolph: Bev Appleton
- Pistol: James Konicek
- Nym: Hugh Nees
- Page: Kurt Rhoads
- Mistress Page: Veanne Cox
- Anne Page: Alyssa Gagarin
- Ford: Michael Mastro
- Mistress Ford: Caralyn Kozlowski
- Company: Remy Brettell, Aayush Chandan, Caroline Coleman, Michael Gregory, Aaryn Kopp, Joey LePage, Matthew McGee, Ian Pedersen, Aidan White
- Director: Stephen Rayne
- Set Design: Daniel Lee Conway
- Costume Design: Wade Laboissonniere
- Lighting Design: Thom Weaver
- Sound Design: John Gromada
- Assistant Director: Gus Heagerty
- Production Stage Manager: Joseph Smelser
- Assistant Stage Manager: Christi B. Spann
Disclaimer: Shakespeare Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8214.
Genie Baskir is a theatrical producer. She worked in radio production and direction for many years and gravitated to theatre when family members became involved with the stage.