Throughout his extensive catalog of works, Shakespeare has proved over and over again that deception always catches up to us in the end, often in hilarious or tragic fashion. Shakespeare Theatre Company’s riotous remounting of The Merry Wives of Windsor offers a modern take on perhaps the most ludicrous of the playwright’s “cons gone wrong”, as harebrained schemes, social gamesmanship, and mistaken identities uncover a bottomless wellspring of laughs hidden in a quiet English town.
Merry Wives unfolds in the sleepy hamlet of Windsor, where beloved Shakespearean knight Sir John Falstaff has fallen from his lofty perch as Prince Hal’s former companion into a state of near-poverty. To climb back up the social ladder, Falstaff hatches a laughably convoluted plan to woo the wealthy Mistress Page and Mistress Ford at the same time. Upon discovering his ruse, the two “merry wives” concoct a plan of their own to punish Falstaff for his trickery and hubris. The ensuing whirlwind of mistaken identity, romantic deceit, and emotional and physical duels churns out high comedy with a distinctly English flair.
Director Stephen Rayne and his creative team have smoothly transplanted Shakespeare’s story from the 16th century to post-WWI England, creating a fresh context for the well known comic business. In his notes, Rayne cites striking economic and cultural similarities between the two disparate eras, such as shifting economy and class structure wherein an upwardly mobile merchant class battles the weary aristocracy for the top of the social food chain.
While British history buffs will feel at home among the period details, uninitiated audience members will also find parallels between Falstaff’s troubles in postwar England and the mad scramble for financial security in post-Crash America. There’s an uncomfortably small logical gulf between pursuing two wealthy benefactors at once and relying on Mega Millions as one’s primary retirement plan.
Costume Designer Wade Laboisonniere garbs the cast in outfits that would not feel out of place in the recent film “War Horse” or the period TV drama “Downtown Abbey.” Corporal Nym’s Scottish tam o’ shanter and Ancient Pistol’s military riding crop provide recognizable symbols of military service to accompany their gruff, officer’s club tomfoolery. Mr. Ford’s atrocious plaid suits amplify the social awkwardness that distances him from his stylish wife.
When young romantic Fenton sets out to woo ingénue Anne Page while riding a motorcycle and sporting an apparent leather jacket, he immediately inserts the words “rebel” and “outsider” into the dialogue. Garish doublets and horses would still do the trick, but the universal stigma of a bad suit and the James Dean cool of a motorcycle quickly and creatively flesh out the character dynamics for the modern audience.
Daniel Lee Conway’s lavish set is a character in its own right. Concentric levels of shallow flats adorned with lush decoration add depth and personality without sacrificing freedom of movement. Burnished wood, polished brass, frosted glass, and satiny fabrics all contribute to the atmosphere of European finery. Falstaff’s room at the inn utilizes painstaking period detail, down to the well-worn ottoman and wall-mounted stag, to create an ambiance of lived-in comfort befitting a self-involved, overfed knight. The fantastical final scene evokes a Midsummer Night’s Dream with fairy lanterns and wild woodland elements.
The star studded cast conduct themselves with uniform zeal and spot on comic timing.
Veteran David Schramm perfectly fits the bill as Falstaff, a man of endless appetites. Schramm chews his every line with relish and breaks down some challenging colloquialisms for the audience with careful diction and calculated mannerisms. He proves that size is an asset in physical comedy as he exploits his girth for quality laughs, particularly so during an episode of ill-advised cross-dressing.
Veanne Cox and Caralyn Kozlowski forge a winning chemistry as sensible Mistress Page and elegant socialite Mistress Ford. It’s a joy to watch the more relaxed Kozlowski gradually lure Cox from her shell, enabling her to become a gleeful partner in crime. Cox imbues Mistress Page with sporadic bursts of tittering laughter and broad smiles, which confirm her poorly concealed enjoyment of tormenting Falstaff.
As the neurotic Master Ford, Michael Mastro almost steals the show from Schramm with far less stage time. As his jealousy and suspicion of his wife grow, Ford delivers a series of captivating speeches that hint at a coiled viper lurking just below his awkward facade. Masto successfully walks a mesmerizing tightrope between pitiful crying jags and shocking outbursts of rage. Meanwhile, Tom Story contributes Monty Python-esque absurdity with his unhinged portrayal of the eccentric Doctor Caius, a man fond of wearing baby blue jumpers and blanketing the stage in a suffocating fog of cologne.
The Merry Wives of Windsor sounds an exultant closing note to Shakespeare Theatre’s 25th anniversary season. Rayne’s grand time travel experiment produces an interesting thought piece about repeating economic and social cycles and roots the Shakespearean tale in a historical setting that has seen a recent resurgence on screens both big and small. The cast attacks the rich material with gusto and sparkling diction, against a scenic backdrop that blends realism with fairytale magic.
It’s a comedic triumph for Shakespeare Theater Company and a must see for theater fans young and old.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
By William Shakespeare
Directed by Stephen Rayne
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with 1 intermission