Through October 26
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR Festival Theatre/Stratford Festival
While Shakespeare included farcical elements in most of his plays, he didn’t write farces.
That’s the key problem with “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” with Stratford Festival Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino at the helm.
Maybe no one felt they could argue with his conception of the play, a show often performed at Stratford, with Geraint Wyn Davies telling a lecture after the performance I saw that it was the third time he had played Sir John Falstaff.
The problem is that eternal problem with older plays: Let’s make it funnier and farcical.
Complicating the production is the decision to set it in the Stratford of the Fifties, in that golden post-war time of majesty and peace, when the vast railroad complex provided the city with jobs and money for all skill levels.
The abrupt decision to close all those steam engine facilities could have killed the town.
Instead, it reinvented itself to Tom Patterson’s dream of a theater town and that’s why a theater was named for him and the fantastic new complex to open next year is also named for him, the man who saved a town and put it on the world map.
But, to move the story of the lustful Sir John Falstaff from medieval Windsor to Fifties Stratford you need an explanation, an idea, a reason.
This isn’t it.
Now, the show does have designer Julie Fox and it has Davies.
Queen Elizabeth I is said to have precipitated the play by asking Shakespeare for another tale of Falstaff.
She got it.
What’s interesting about moving the story forward 350 years is the role of women.
Elizabeth may have been queen but there were few other women in positions of power.
Mistress Page (Brigit Wilson) and Mistress Ford (Sophia Walker) run things in this Windsor, much more likely in a world where women went to war production when men went to war and women followed them into uniform, also.
There is also the hostess of the Garter (Sarah Dodd) the busiest gin mill in town.
There are really two stories here, Falstaff attempting to bed the ladies and Anne Page (Shruti Kothari) attempting to marry who she wants, not the husband chosen by her family.
Clearly that was more likely in the Stratford of the Fifties.
The two women play Falstaff for the fool he is, perhaps what the Queen was looking for.
They do awful things to the drunken knight, deservedly, and it takes a while for him to realize they know what’s going on when he’s putting the moves on each of the women, not realizing they are comparing notes.
That’s the plot element of Falstaff being taken out of the Ford House stashed in a giant laundry basket and dumped in the River Thames.
Here, there is a whole skit involving the four guys needed to carry the basket holding Falstaff, a farcical skit.
The whole town goes after Falstaff when he joins the false rumor that Herne, the hunter has been spotted in the forest nearby and we find the children of Windsor torturing him while disguised as fairies.
“Merry Wives” is clearly not Shakespeare’s best but it’s strong enough that it’s done a lot.
It’s also one of the Bard’s few plays where women are clearly key to the plot and the story.
There are a couple of strong performances in the show, Davies, even with some of the excessively funny things he’s required to do, an over-done Dr. Caius from Gordon S. Miller, Mike Shara’s Fenton, Kothari’s Anne Page and Dodd.
Fox’ set design is effective and quickly changeable, keeping it all moving.
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” requires less desire to be really funny.
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