By William Shakespeare. Directed by Johnna Wright. A Bard on the Beach production on the BMO Mainstage on Friday, June 24. Continues in rep until September 24
You know a show is working when you find yourself envying the actors who get to perform it. The cast of The Merry Wives of Windsor is having an infectiously good time.
Few would argue that the script is one of Shakespeare’s best. It’s written entirely in prose and its comic set-ups are creakingly mechanical. A fat old knight named Sir John Falstaff needs some cash, so he sets out to seduce two wealthy married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who are best friends. When he sends identical love notes to them, the merry wives decide to teach Falstaff a lesson by repeatedly feigning interest, then humiliating him. In the subplot, a gaggle of fools, and one true love attempt to marry Mistress Page’s daughter, Anne.
Director Johnna Wright, who first mounted her vision of Merry Wives for Bard on the Beach in 2012, sets the story in Windsor, Ontario, circa 1968, in and around an open-mic bar called the Garter Inn. The bar setting allows the characters to burst into song, so we get a handful of period hits, including “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’”, “Crazy”, and “Stand By Your Man”. Both because the songs extend the already considerable exuberance and because they often speak to the heart of the story, they work.
It helps that there is a ridiculous amount of talent on the stage. Ben Elliott plays Slender, one of the foolish suitors. Elliott uses his lanky physicality to turn Slender into a line drawing, a cartoon, and he plays the character’s non-sequiturs masterfully. It’s a delight to see this young actor coming into the fullness of his talent. Andrew Chown is also hilarious as Dr. Caius, the French variation on the theme of foolish suitor. This young player’s confidence allows him to be outrageous—and still responsive—within his character’s affectations.
There are seasoned pros up there, too. Ashley Wright squeezes every drop of comedy out of the fat knight’s lines: Falstaff describes a dirty laundry basket that he’s forced to hide in as “more than half-stewed in grease, like a Dutch dish”, and, because Wright is discovering the image as he speaks it, it’s vivid. Amber Lewis (Mistress Ford) does some hilarious business when she’s pretending to be turned on by Falstaff. And, for the most part, Scott Bellis is superb as Ford, her husband, Ford: he turns the character’s jealousy into a kind of exasperated dance.
Not everything works. The first act drags noticeably as it approaches intermission. Playing Ford in disguise, Bellis does some beatnik shtick that goes on too long. And, in a production that’s already outsized, Jenn Lines manages to be over the top as everybody’s duplicitous confidante, Mistress Quickly.
The second half rockets, however. Pam Johnson’s appropriately musty set is instantly recognizable, right down to the moose head on the wall. Drew Facey’s costumes are a symphony of eye-popping sixties eccentricity: Dr. Caius wears a chartreuse suit with a black-and-white polka-dotted shirt, pink socks, and pink tie. And Valerie Easton’s choreography frolics. Watching the actors dancing their way ecstatically through their bows: that’s when the envy struck.