'Merry Wives of Windsor' goes stag - to good effect

Gordon Jones
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Tradition has it that "The Merry Wives of Windsor," second play up in the Shakespeare by the Sea Festival, was written after Queen Elizabeth I expressed a desire to see Sir John Falstaff in love. So, recycling a handful of unsavoury comic characters from his "Henry IV" plays, supplemented by a batch of respectable residents of Windsor, Shakespeare knocked together a two-stranded piece on courtship and marriage.

Amatory rivalry between three suitors for the hand of the singular Anne Page acts as the counterweight to Falstaff's campaign to seduce not only the wife of the pathologically jealous Master Ford, but also her bosom friend, the mother of much-sought-after Anne. Young love and marital fidelity ultimately prevail. Anne elopes with her preferred suitor, while the two virtuous matrons outwit and humiliate the predatory Falstaff, who is variously beaten, dumped in the river, pinched, punched, tormented and swarmed by the righteous citizens of Windsor. Then everyone kisses and makes up after midnight shenanigans.

Tradition has it that "The Merry Wives of Windsor," second play up in the Shakespeare by the Sea Festival, was written after Queen Elizabeth I expressed a desire to see Sir John Falstaff in love. So, recycling a handful of unsavoury comic characters from his "Henry IV" plays, supplemented by a batch of respectable residents of Windsor, Shakespeare knocked together a two-stranded piece on courtship and marriage.

Amatory rivalry between three suitors for the hand of the singular Anne Page acts as the counterweight to Falstaff's campaign to seduce not only the wife of the pathologically jealous Master Ford, but also her bosom friend, the mother of much-sought-after Anne. Young love and marital fidelity ultimately prevail. Anne elopes with her preferred suitor, while the two virtuous matrons outwit and humiliate the predatory Falstaff, who is variously beaten, dumped in the river, pinched, punched, tormented and swarmed by the righteous citizens of Windsor. Then everyone kisses and makes up after midnight shenanigans.

This production of "Merry Wives" features a presentational innovation: it is played by an all-male cast. Not a novelty in Shakespeare's day, of course, when English acting companies were exclusively male. Indeed, the practice of female parts being taken by men and boys in the playhouses of London was so entrenched that an English traveller to Venice, seeing actresses on stage for the first time, was surprised to discover that they performed female roles as well as any male. For the modern viewer, though, the perspective is reversed. Will males carry it off as fluently as women, or will the cross-gender roles be caricatures? A little of both, perhaps?

Sensibly, no attempt is made to tinker with falsetto effects for the four cross-dressed roles. The role of desirable Anne Ford is played by young Dylan Brenton with statuesque poise and self-possession. Suspension of audience disbelief is achieved effortlessly. The same is true for Shree Ziradkar's comically conspiratorial and huskily confidential Mistress Quickly, who acts as go-between for all three of Anne's suitors. Mistress Quickly is much younger and much sexier than is customary for the role. Ziradkar shapes and inhabits the part zestfully and persuasively. Male, female - who knows, who cares?

The two merry wives, Falstaff's intended prey who turn the tables on him, are played by Andy Cahill and Michael Nolan. Cahill's long-suffering Mistress Ford is the more natural, while Nolan's bustling, indignant Mistress Page is the funnier, crafted by an experienced Shakespearean comedian, who knows precisely how far he can go without falling over the edge.

The cross-gender casting, which might have been intrusive, kept the opening-night audience engaged and alert to the comic potential of sexuality and to the paradoxes of construction of gender in society. In any event, since Shakespeare's text provides for Falstaff to masquerade as the wise woman of Brentford in order to evade an irate husband, and since Anne's two rejected suitors are gulled into eloping with boys dressed as girls, gender boundaries in "Merry Wives" are sufficiently porous that perhaps it must be allowed that clothes truly make the woman.

As well as gender-shifting, this production features a further innovation: it is set in the deep south of antebellum Dixie, where gentlemen are gentlemen and ladies are ladies. Or not, as the case may be. Gentlemen wear frock coats and white gloves. Ladies wear elaborate ball gowns and long white gloves, cooling themselves with expertly handled fans. How much of gender is accessorization?

Occasional music derives from the period around the American civil war. Dialogue is delivered with a Dixie drawl, with the exception of the explicitly Welsh Parson Evans (Jon Weir). Did he accidentally turn right on the way from Wales to Patagonia? Also exempt from Dixie-speak are the French firebrand, Dr. Caius (Michael Collins, who also doubles as the bellicose Corporal Nym), and Justice Shallow, a character so irredeemably English that veteran Shakespearean Peter Ayers is certainly not going to give him a foreign accent.

The southern twang is initially disconcerting. But you get used to it. Then it augments the fun in its tweaking of Shakespeare's language. Why set this very English play way down south in Dixie? Why not, if the incongruity piques our interest and supplements the comedy? All's fair in love and Shakespeare appropriation.

Individual highlights of this unorthodox production include Ciaran Dyke's nicely differentiated manner and appearance in his doubling of the white-knight role of Fenton and the antithetical role of Falstaff's sidekick, Bardolph. Chris Panting and Tim Foss are substantial and confident in the paired roles of wife-suspecting Ford and wife-trusting Page. Panting's impressive performance in his first major role augurs well for the future.

Jon Grenning's foolishly grinning, ever-cheerful Simple, wandering hither and yon, while waving at cast and audience alike, is a delight; while Giles Ayers is quizzically respectful in deportment as he plays the amiably fatuous Slender opposite his father's Justice Shallow.

Leaving the best to last, I have not yet mentioned Bruce Brenton's Falstaff. Stuffed and padded, a gross, walking pyramid of flesh, Brenton narcissistically pats, strokes, embraces and lasciviously flaunts his bloated and cherished body, confident that he is sexually irresistible to the matrons he pursues. Overbearing to subordinates and wheedling to superiors, greedy and lecherous, Brenton's rendering of the role is masterful. His representation, interpretation and timing squeeze out of the part every microgram of suggestive nuance and comic effect.

If you appreciate outstanding performance, or if you simply enjoy a good laugh, don't fail to be in the audience for an evening of Brenton's stupendous Falstaff.

Danielle Irvine directs this inventive and very funny version of "The Merry Wives of Windsor," containing strong individual and ensemble work, together with a wealth of interpretive trouvailles and felicitous flourishes. It runs on Friday and Saturday evenings until Aug. 16, commencing at 6 p.m., in the Cabot 500 Theatre in Bowring Park.

Geographic location: Windsor, Dixie, London Venice Wales

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