For anyone planning to see Theatreworks' production of Merry Wives of Windsor, I advise first reading this newsletter post by director Kevin Landis, in which he explains the disjointed nature of the play's script.
You'll also want to read our interview with Landis here, as well.
The reason I advise doing so, is because even afterward, the opening of the play — around the first 15 minutes — presents quite a challenge of sorting out who's who and exactly what's being plotted through often muddy Welsh, French and English accents. Landis' assessment — "It is clearly a text that has been added to, subtracted from and tinkered with based on the audiences that it was being performed for" — is spot on, as the setup to the central plot (Falstaff's failed scheme) fumbles along with distracting side plots.
This criticism of course speaks more to the play itself (I now clearly see why it's one of Shakespeare's least-produced shows) than to Theatreworks' staging of it.
But the company isn't entirely without fault. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the show comes through all the hype of returning to the great outdoors for the first time in many years. The idea is wonderful, and the tie-in to Rock Ledge Ranch was also a great idea and brought a lot of potential. But I think a good portion of that potential remains untapped, mainly because once you enter the tent, you might as well be in an indoor, black box theater.
Picnicking beforehand on the lush, lovely grounds is a real treat, as the actors dabble about in costume to create the feel of Windsor, Colo., around the turn of the 20th century. It's so pleasant, in fact, you're reluctant to disappear into the tent, where contrary to artistic director Murray Ross' comment that "the winds can blow," the side fabric is actually fastened down so that no breeze enters the stuffy space, heated by a handful of stage lights and a large crowd's body heat.
I certainly understand the concern for rain and hail, also mentioned by Ross, which it would seem the overhead fabric would account for, and in the event of a prolific storm in that case, side flaps could be lowered to protect the crowd, set and electrics. I do not know the features of this particular tent and its limitations, but I can say that it just doesn't fully capture the magic of Shakespeare outdoors nor tie the performance much to Rock Ledge Ranch.
Only at the show's conclusion does the outfit truly utilize the setting — I won't give away exactly how so as to ruin the surprise for others — and I only wish they'd decided to incorporate that element for the entire show. Here's a hint: The move is reminiscent of something pretty brilliant Theatreworks did in last year's production of Our Town, which was the finest I've seen.
The one aspect of the show that does link well to the setting is the costuming, which although a bit comically short and tight (Slender) and lumpy (Falstaff) at times, does overall convey a blend of old England and late 19th century Colorado. Overalls, plaid shirts, fancy vests, suit pants and frontier top hats create a dapper and part drunken cast that though supposedly in Colorado, still speaks true-to-the-text about England. That, beyond the spastic script, is a little disorienting.
Something the cast did quite well in the intimate space was to interact with and bring the audience into the performance — quite literally. And this proved some of the funniest moments of the performance. The fourth wall was broken with (almost too much) regularity, as both Ford and Falstaff interacted and improved with front row guests, who by fortune happened to have quick wits themselves. In the case of Falstaff, some of the theatrics became tedious, such as dramatically rolling back and forth to stand up, and finally springing up with a hokey, ta-da-type exclamation to audience applause. And some of the script's ribald humor was granted too much of an Austin Powers feel with humpy hip thrusts, though I assume all the butt and boob grabbing would have worked quite well when all male actors performed the roles centuries ago. (Again, I won't entirely fault the company for the source material.)
Ultimately, I think if the rule of three were applied and Landis picked a few key moments to break the fourth wall, it could be funnier than Falstaff breaking it three times inside of a few lines of monologue. But then again, this is a comedy whose shaky scriptural foundation is seemingly built upon squeezing as many laughs into a story haphazardly with little concern for servicing the plot. So if it's laughs that audience interaction earns, and that's what they want, then go ahead and give 'em to them. For the record: I best liked Sir John Falstaff in the Henry IV plays, as the bad influence on the maturing Prince Hal, and as a side character whose wayward humor served that plot. No matter how well played he is in Merry Wives of Windsor, his over-the-top buffoonery makes the script feel like a bad sequel.
Khris Lewin in particular deserves praise for his role as Ford and the sub-role of Mr. Brooke, a highly gesture-prone, high-talking schemer dressed in a gaudy purple pimp cape. Lewin and Falstaff actor Bob Rais play wonderfully off one another in the scenes they have to themselves, earning the loudest audience laughter with their physical humor. Again, they take it a touch over the line into Abbott and Costello territory at times, but the result is still hilarious.
Though you may sweat a bit, you'll be ensured an entertaining evening at Rock Ledge Ranch, even if like me, you feel that you enjoyed individual scenes greatly while disliking the text as a whole. In trying to relate the experience of Merry Wives of Windsor, I feel that perhaps a Jim Carrey movie is the best analogy: There's undeniable talent in the spotlight, genuinely funny moments and just enough comedic glue to hold the story together, but in the end, you wouldn't add this to your top 10 list. It's not a Shakespeare play, like others, that I'd want to periodically see again.
Theatreworks, to its credit, has probably achieved close to the best this script has to offer, the aforementioned flaws aside. In the service of how best to spend a pleasant summer's night at the theater, this is mostly on target.
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