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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival

Or: Gilded Glory

The town of Windsor, Wisconsin, 1947. The War is over and the air is thick with gayety, anticipation, and other musky odors as the boys come home and the girls frolic in the heady mix of style, prosperity and liberation. Sir John Falstaff (Alad Davies) a famous film star, now down on his luck, hosts a film festival of his past masterpieces and attempts to fund his next film by seducing Alice (Laura Welsh Berg) and Meg (Jodi Dominick) receptive wives of Mr.’s Ford (Lynn Robert Berg) and Page (Ian Gould), men of quality and means. Smelling a rotten ruse and the cad who laid it, the Misses device a fiendish plot to humiliate Falstaff, and neuter the passion born jealousy of Mr. Ford. Meanwhile, revenges and romances enmesh the whole populace into one screwball comedy, teetering towards disaster but never losing it’s mirth.

In her other two appearances at the Festival, director Tracy Young has run lab tests of a particular style of adaptation: the breeding of a classic text (The Imaginary Invalid, The Taming of the Shrew) with a highly evolved send-up of a twentieth century decade (the blithe 60’s and the brazen 80’s) creating a jazzy hybrid that couples couplet and pop-culture quotation. She has certainly outdone herself in uniting the toothsomely sweet and kitchen-hearth Merry Wives with the glory and doubt that chased each other’s heels throughout the Roaring Forties (used in both senses of the word). The sense is of a manic happiness, with the down-swing just on the far side of the door; a peeling-glamour and short-lived vitality captured exquisitely by costumer Alex Jaeger and Choreographer Helene Peterson.

Sadly the adaptation itself, the contemporarizing of the text and the translation of Elizabethan to Screwball humor, falls wide of its intended mark. It could be a splendid “concept” Merry Wives, or it could be an excellent “inspired-by” play, but by straddling two horses at once there is much strain and stretching in uncomfortable areas. What should clip in the Shakespearian portions seemed overstuffed with word-swaps that fish for laughs with only modest catches. The moments of 40’s comedy must so closely adhere to the madcap and byzantium plots of the original script that we loose a lot of the juicy background stories Young has, with such care, marinated her characters in. Then there are the great moments of physical action, which have a rushed and tumbled feel: a jumble of limbs, cream pies, and cavorting kids. Their accompanying lines are often swallowed whole and, on at least two occasions, physical gags of stage violence which should have drummed up billows of laughter instead gathered a garland of horrified silence, and (worse) confused glances, waiting for the fog machine and the screaming to stop and the world to make sense again. And then there is the matter of the rampant mumbling amongst the younger members of the company; a muddling of intent and address that cast both quip and zinger up into the cold reception of the open air (See this finger, dear reader? It’s a’Waggaling).

Fortunately, Young has an undeniably brilliant sense for character (both in their hilarity and depth) as well the coals of comedy they must dance across to make us love them. Like an inventive leader of a group of portaging pioneers, Young directs her Principals so as to carry the production evenly between them, and what could be clumsy maneuvering is executed with ease. Noted points go to Host (Kyle Jean Baptiste), an elegant archer of zingers, and Dr. Caius (Tom Ford) whose mincing Poirot step and snooty snarling punctured us with the blade of humor every.single.time (“Bheggahn!”). Gould and Mr. Berg are superb Shakespearians, investing their prose both with powerful projection and nimble, sharp edged sarcasm. And just as in the play, Dominick and Mrs. Berg dominate the production like a pair of expert vaudeville stars, matching and completing physical lazzi, verbal flourishes, and once again proving that it takes great skill to play “bad” actors. Berg swum through Mistress Ford’s deceptions with an otterlike abandon and Dominick’s devotion to clarity of speech and mercurial movement (well used in Young’s imagining of an off-kilter ballet teacher) served her to a tee.

But as fine and funny as all they were none came quite as close to serving what the production could have been as Davies’s Falstaff, who held, as much as anyone could, the duel and ofttimes contracting requirements of the yokéd styles. Rarer still, his Falstaff went beyond the usual, single flavor, interpretations of the role (merry, melancholy, or rapscallious; vanilla, chocolate or strawberry), to create something truly human, holding the mirror up to our grosser thoughts and actions. Both hilariously touching and touch-me-not vile, he created an ultimately sympathetic creature who you cheer to be lead to the slaughter of his dignity but with the fervent wish he might amend.

The Merry Wives of Windsor (Wisconsin) finds its true power, and entertainment, in moments of darkness. The generally gregarious Father Hugh Evens (M.A. Taylor) pausing to remember all the boys who never made it back home; Falstaff in a shadowed projector booth, gazing at the unseen screen and his lost hollywood glory; The revelation of a vicious mean streak in Mistress Page, a wanton destructiveness, that starts off darling and diverting and becomes, by degrees, downright disquieting. Couple that with the pure joy of the many, many dance sequences, soused in the freedom and flair of an exultant time, and the crafting of two dear friends to take the men who think they have their number down a peg, but gently. It makes for show that had, but for over reaching, been a marvel but is undoubtedly a fine and entertaining jaunt.

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