The Merry Wives of Windsor gets a crowd-pleasing update
By William Shakespeare. Directed by Johnna Wright. A Bard on the Beach production. On the Studio Stage on Thursday, July 5. Continues until September 21
Aspiring playwrights, take comfort: even Shakespeare wrote some duds.
The Bard’s only play set in Elizabethan England, The Merry Wives of Windsor is a vehicle showcasing the character of Sir John Falstaff. Strapped for cash, the famously fat knight decides to woo two married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, but when the wives discover that he’s sent them identical love letters, they plot together to humiliate him.
An essential ingredient in Shakespeare’s best comedies is surprise, and it’s in woefully short supply in this text. Again and again, we watch characters hatch a plan, watch them execute it, and then watch someone recount what has happened. And it never feels like there’s anything meaningful at stake: Falstaff doesn’t have any dignity to begin with, so who cares if he loses it? There are a couple of subplots, but they feel even more thinly sketched.
The challenge for a director is to create a palatable package from this flimsy material, and Johnna Wright boldly sets the action in a Windsor, Ontario, pub in 1968. This choice leads to many visual and aural pleasures, including Drew Facey’s eye-popping costumes and a jukebox’s worth of great songs, but its connection to the script ultimately feels arbitrary and perfunctory.
Nevertheless, the actors in this production do terrific work. Ashley Wright’s Falstaff is a charming buffoon, aware of—and unapologetic about—his shortcomings. Scott Bellis makes Ford’s jealousy hilarious; when he suspects his wife of arranging an assignation with Falstaff, he petulantly spits out “Cuckold! Cuckold! Cuckold!” before drinking himself into a stupor. David Marr gives Dr. Caius an outrageous French accent and an attitude to match. Katey Wright sings beautifully as Mistress Page, and a shaggy Todd Thomson, as the Host, plays a mean electric guitar.
Facey has clearly had a blast with the costumes, creating a sea of bright plaids, polka dots, and pop-culture allusions: Mistress Quickly is styled as a dead ringer for Alice on The Brady Bunch; Shallow is a scooter-riding Shriner; and Ford disguises himself as a beatnik, complete with black turtleneck, beret, and medallion.
Director Wright creates some great physical business, too, most memorably when two servants try to move the laundry basket in which Falstaff is hiding. Benjamin Elliott’s musical direction pays affectionate tribute to the period. The show opens with the wives singing “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ”. Later, Falstaff serenades an unsuspecting audience member with “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked on Me”.
It’s crowd-pleasing stuff, but it doesn’t add up to a satisfying whole.