The Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s 2011 season has kicked off with a comedy for the ages. What may well be described as something old (the Bard’s The Merry Wives of Windsor), something new (designer Robert Perdziola making his Festival début), something borrowed (director Frank Galati’s work is seen regularly at the Steppenwolf Theater Company, Chicago) and something blue (clutching two women to his groin and shouting “woodman?” is just one of many ribald, er, touches in this beloved tale of The Fatman Cometh).
The “gentleman” under discussion is Sir John Falstaff. Fatuously obese, oblivious to reality, and often obtuse, the central character is, nevertheless, a delightful lecher who has no qualms about professing his unbridled love to any middle-aged woman that replies to his carbon copy letters, requesting her immediate carnal infidelity, hopefully as a precursor to draining her husband’s purse. (Falstaff is smart enough to realize that single, nubile babes are beyond his net but that those “comfortably” married might crave a little untoward affection if only to inspire their take-them-for-granted spouses to pay more heed.)
In role that truly takes the measure of an actor, Geraint Wyn Davies is nothing short of superb as the horniest, hungriest knight of the realm (this is the only comedy Shakespeare set in England). The wardrobe elves (under the inventive tutelage of Bradley Dalcourt) have fashioned a girth that, while not Monty Python deluxe, makes no doubt that any sort of sensible diet will never grace Sir John’s plate.
Wyn Davies—immediately identifying with any male in the crowd beyond a 34-inch waist—revels in his blubber, bombast and bamboozlements (three times on the cusp of illicit consummation, he never gets any satisfaction, settling for a dunking in the Thames, beating—whilst in drag—and public humiliation after displaying his horns only to become besieged by a wild pack of fairies). It’s a performance that won’t be forgotten anytime soon even allowing for a few slices of ham (if the wordplay misses, it’s best to move on). No worries. Judging from the rapturous applause on opening night, critical quibbles matter not.
The objects of his affections (and pecuniary needs) are Mistress Margaret Page (Laura Condlin) and Mistress Alice Ford (Lucy Peacock). The former is conniving enough if somewhat routine in her delivery; the latter provides the finest female interventions of the show: expert cadence, side-splitting body/bawdy language and an irresistible sense of fun inform Peacock’s every line, grimace and gesture.
Surveying the remaining male leads, veteran James Blendick is an initial hoot (his incredulous bluster gradually wears thin) as a seasoned judge trying to intervene on behalf of his “idiot” nephew, Master Abraham Slender (Christopher Prentice renders an ideal dolt), and claim the hand of the lovely Anne Page (Sophia Walker in this performance). But there’s a line-up for the comely maid.
French physician Doctor Caius (Nigel Bennett is appropriately eager and game enough, yet his accent—much of it crafted by Shakespeare—sometimes gets in the road of meaning, by gar!) is favoured by Anne’s mother. Dad (Master George Page is done up handily by Tom McManus) is ready to welcome Slender into the family. The much sought-after bride-to-be’s own choice is Fenton. With boyish good looks and convincing passion, Trent Pardy is the perfect foil to his competitors.
Jealously personified comes in the form of Master Frank Ford. Tom Rooney plays the obsession most convincingly: the word “buck” has never been funnier.
But it will take fairies of all sorts and a couple of same-sex trips to the altar before true love conquers all.
Ensuring the several clandestine meetings do go ahead as planned are Mistress Quickly (Janet Wright goes about her go-between chores with quiet, if nearly stilted, surety) and the very young Robin (Abigail Winter-Culliford).
Keeping the peace and pouring the libations at the Garter Inn (Falstaff’s digs) is no easy task. Hilariously, Randy Hughson proves an affable host, diffusing a certain-death duel (in one of several side plots, Parson Evans—Andrew Gillies—demands satisfaction from Dr. Caius) with location misdirection and surviving the loss of some horses when his German guests fly the coup.
Anyone who has never seen or heard of these merry wives or those new to Shakespeare in general might well be surprised how complex and marvellously situational this comedy is.
Thanks to Galati’s experience and creativity, the play flows along as easily as Falstaff’s brews. To keep the funny bone satiated, bits of business are inserted: duck hunting brings on tears-in-your-eyes hilarity; even a stoic owl draws a yuk; a pinch of a fellow writer’s sonnet (from Elizabeth Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?”) are all worked into the mix.
Perhaps a few too many “extras” for purists, there’s, nonetheless, no doubt that for three hours, the calamities all around us can be forgotten while the model of over-indulgence goes about his zany affairs. JWR