Doing The Merry Wives of Windsor runs the risk of too much deference to the Bard and not enough fun with Falstaff and the Windsor burghers whom he plagues (and who put him firmly in his place). The Developing Acts production of the play fortunately avoided the pitfalls of bardolatry while floating sunnily on the ever-mounting waves of Shakespeare’s farce and Falstaff’s ever-increasing discomfiture.
Falstaff, convinced that he is God’s gift to women, writes identical love letters to two prominent ladies of the town, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. The ladies, with the help of Mistress Ford’s husband (dressed up in disguise as a helpful stranger, Brook), encourage Falstaff to keep trysts with them. They cause scenes in which Falstaff must escape discovery by such means as being packed in a trunkful of soiled laundry (subsequently dumped in the Thames) or disguising himself as a shrewish female relative and being chased out of the house with a cudgel. Other subplots abound, concerning who will marry the Pages’ daughter as well as comic goings-on among the Falstaff’s associates.
The Developing Acts production showed inventiveness in casting, with a very funny black Falstaff (Tony White), who obviously embraced the narcissistic posing of his character to the point that he willingly abandoned all dignity. Other members of the company – notably Liz Forst as Mistress Page, Marguerite Moray as Mistress Ford, and Rick Redondo as Ford/Brook – showed poise in the midst of chaos. Given the bewildering array of characters, those with less-expansive parts had fewer chances to get across an impression, but generally succeeded, notably, in trouser roles, Teri Monahan as Nym and Ellen Reif as Pistol.
The costuming (uncredited), vaguely contemporaneous with the music of Elvis and others that made up the sound design, lent vigor and color to the characterizations. In a play, like all Shakespeare comedies, that depends on a multiplicity of characters confusing each other’s identities, costuming is crucial. The set (Dave Smith) comprised mostly roses stage right, ivy stage left, and a variety of boxes, sometimes adorned to resemble oak trees and other set pieces. This minimalism brought to mind, yet again, that the audience doesn’t go out humming the scenery.
All the above elements would have meant nothing if not combined masterfully by director Kelly Barrett, who shouldered the daunting task of keeping the traffic flowing while pointing up the innumerable details of the complicated story (and making it all louder, faster, funnier). If only she had pushed her interpretation one step further -- to Falstaff as The King (just add gold chains and swiveling hips). Now, that would have been really something!
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Copyright 2005 John Chatterton