Sunday, April 15, 2012

ASF: "The Merry Wives of Windsor"

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival continues its "English Season" with a fast-moving and clever staging of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the Bard's only comedy to focus on middle-class life & characters. Whether it is true that Queen Elizabeth was so taken with the character of Falstaff in the Henry plays and wanted Shakespeare to write a play showing Falstaff in love is questionable; the result in this play does not so much show him "in love" as "in lust" however, and is presented with a large amount of good natured fun at his expense.

With director Diana VanFossen at the helm, the time of the play has shifted from the Elizabethan Period to 1910 England, and is staged on Peter Hicks' colorful art deco painted/stained-glass set with a backdrop silhouetting an iconic view of Windsor Castle fronted by an open-space "street scene" showing three houses reminiscent of Classical Roman, Italian Renaissance, and Elizabethan staging, and an indebtedness to the conventions of comedic writing and the popular culture of Elizabethan Windsor. Indeed, Merry Wives contains a catalogue of such conventions that appeal to middle-class audiences then and now: numerous suitors for the hand of an attractive young woman, only one of whom is appropriate; parents arranging a suitable husband; wily servants who change allegiances at the drop of a coin or two; disguises & cross-dressing; a jealous husband and a faithful wife; ridicule of "foreigners" who fracture the English language; mistrust of the upper class; self-assertive women; sexual allusions and double (even triple) entendre; and the attempted cuckholding of two prominent citizens by Sir John Falstaff -- and the merry wives' counter-schemes to humiliate the lecherous yet somehow loveable knight.

When best friends Mistress Ford [Vanessa Morosco] and Mistress Page [Cheri Lynne VandenHeuvel] discover that Falstaff [Wilbur Edwin Henry] has sent each of them identical love letters, "the game is on": they determine to lead him on and embarrass him for his duplicity and arrogance; and this plot defines most of the action to come. What a delight to see these fine actors shrewdly maneuvering Falstaff in three separate and increasingly ridiculous schemes involving a laundry basket, disguising him as a woman, and adorning his head with large horns while he is pinched by "faeries" in the forest.

Adding to the fun is the bafflement of Mistress Ford's jealous husband Frank [Peter Simon Hilton] who, try as he might to discover his wife's supposed unfaithfulness, gets more and more frustrated. Mr. Hilton's comic posturing & timing are highlights of the role. He is abetted by George Page [Brik Berkes], the trusting husband of Mistress Page, though the Pages become the brunt of a joke when their daughter Anne [Bliss Griffin] marries her true love Fenton [Jackson Thompson] against their wishes.

Anne's other suitors -- an effete gentleman named Slender [Craig Hanson], Sir Hugh Evans [Louis Butelli] a Welsh parson, and a French physician Doctor Caius [Paul Hebron] -- are each played for broad comic effect through "camp" posturings, misuse of the English language, and over-the-top behavior.

Central to it all is Sir John Falstaff's persistence and the willingness of most everyone else to see him thwarted. Justice Shallow [Rodney Clark] holds a grudge against him and even Falstaff's cohorts -- Bardolph [Colin Meath], Pistol [Timothy Carter], and Nym [Jay McClure] -- and the Host of the Garter Inn [James Bowen], join forces in getting even with the rotund drunkard knight for his conceived or real affronts against them. And the wily Mistress Quickly [Jennifer Barnhart] cheerfully pushes the plot along as she plays for all sides and especially for her own gain.

Mr. Henry shines as Falstaff in ASF's excellent ensemble. Despite the character's many unattractive qualities apparent in this portrayal -- he is a drunkard and a glutton, unscrupulous in lusting after two married women, critical of most other people he comes in contact with, has poor manners and worse hygeine, and is an untrustworthy friend -- Mr. Henry somehow salvages Falstaff from our complete derision. A likeable con-man, this Falstaff is so good-natured that we as well as the characters in the play can forgive him.

Ms. VanFossen has added a clever Punch and Judy show as a prologue that sets up the action yet to come, and does it as a harmless children's entertainment that accentuates the silliness and knockabout plot. And her incorporating lavish puppets in Falstaff's final comeuppance is staged as a kind of masque popular in Shakespeare's time-- James Conely's carnival musical score [think hurdy-gurdy or caliope] supports & punctuates each scene, keeping the festive mood alive even in the play's darker moments.

Throughout the two-and-a-half hour production, the light [Phil Monat is the lighting designer] shining through the translucent set pieces, combined with Brenda Van der Wiel's richly hued costumes, saturates each moment. The collaboration of actors, director, composer, and designers helps create a masterful handling of Shakespeare's greatest farce.