By Ruth Ross
The revenge play, a popular staple of Elizabethan theater, was usually a bloody drama with a high body count at the end; Hamlet is the quintessential example of the genre. But who ever heard of a comedic "take" on revenge? Probably not too many—at least not until you've seen The Merry Wives of Windsor, now onstage at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. [Top: George Page (Joey Collins) and Mistress Margaret Page (Saluda Camp) look on as Sir John Falstaff (David Andrew Macdonald) introduces himself to Mistress Alice Ford (Caralyn Kozlowski) Photo © Jerry Dalia]
The final offering of the troupe's 55th season—and the culminating production of Artistic Director Bonnie J. Monte's silver anniversary with STNJ—The Merry Wives of Windsor shows that revenge can be sweet and very funny. Ostensibly written in a fortnight at the behest of Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to see more of Sir John Falstaff, the comedy may not be one of the Bard’s best, what with a several superfluous scenes and characters, but he does reprise the lecherous old knight to terrific comedic effect. That reprisal posed problems, however, for Shakespeare had killed off the fat knight at the end of Henry V!
To get around these awkward logistics, Shakespeare has set his play before Falstaff befriends Prince Hal, when his debauchery is just beginning to make itself manifest. To that end, we have a randy middle-aged nobleman of already ample girth, a well-dressed man about town (in this case, the village of Windsor in the shadow of the great royal residence). He mingles with the locals, imbibes plenty of sack and attempts to seduce Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, both of whom have control over their prominent middle class husbands’ money, which he desires. When the two clever gals get wind of his scheme, they devise an even cleverer plot to stymie his plans and humiliate the blowhard in the process. [Above: Mistress Margaret Page (Saluda Camp, left)) and Mistress Alice Ford (Caralyn Kozlowski, right) begin planning their mischief. Photo © Jerry Dalia]
The ensuing receipt of identical letters, Falstaff’s concealment in a very large laundry basket, his subsequent donning of a demeaning disguise and a very public humiliation in the woods make The Merry Wives of Windsor an excellent farce. Further hilarity is provided by the wooing of Mistress Page’s lovely daughter Anne by the childlike, goofy gentleman Abraham Slender, attracted by her father’s money; a foppish French doctor named Caius; and handsome gentleman Fenton, whom Anne really loves. Add an insanely jealous husband, a Welsh parson and a pandering housekeeper, and you have a recipe for merriment!
The myriad of changing scenes has been resolved by set designer Jonathan Wentz to provide the doors so necessary to farce mounted on steel forms that roll on and off, open at the sides to reveal still more scenery, but remain unsubstantial enough to convey a sense of fantasy. That feeling is reinforced by the pinkish cotton candy-like tree forms and a bright pink sky behind the castle and environs situated on a bluff above the village. Props quickly carried on and off complete the changes in venue without much of a break in the action, although it can be dizzying. Yao Chen's costumes are appropriate to a rising middle class, with the Fords and Pages attired in brightly colored luxurious fabrics to trumpet their prosperity.
David Andrew Macdonald is a handsome Falstaff. Although he is conceited, we do have some sympathy for his portrayal of an aging man full of pride in his physical attractiveness—and perhaps concerned that it is waning. Caralyn Koslowski's Mistress Alice Ford, his main "conquest," is deliciously sassy and knowledgeable about what makes men tick. As her co-conspirator Mistress Margaret Page, Saluda Camp wholeheartedly aids and abets the scheme to bring Falstaff down, although she often shouts her dialogue even when such overacting (so a hidden Falstaff will hear her) is not called for. Joey Collins as George Page doesn't appear to doubt his wife's marital fidelity; all he's interested in is marrying his daughter to a gentleman. However, Matt Sullivan is terrific as Frank Ford, Alice's jealous husband, going so far as to launch his own plot to ensnare Falstaff and catch her cheating. Sullivan's expressive face and apoplectic delivery are hilarious; just watching him morph from Ford to Brook and back to Ford again is a show in itself. [Above: Frank Ford (Matt Sullivan, left) dons a disguise to get Sir John Falstaff (David Andrew Macdonald, right) to reveal his intentions. Photo © Jerry Dalia]
As he often does either in comedy or tragedy, Shakespeare creates four characters who mangle the English tongue with impunity. Ames Adamson's Welsh parson, Sir Hugh Evans, pronounces "bold" as "pold" and "butter" as putter, eliciting laughter from the audience with his thick accent. As the sassy, conniving housekeeper for Dr. Caius, Kristie Dale Sanders also utters Malapropisms as she helps the matrons in their scheme, while Jon Barker brings down the house as the Frenchman Dr. Caius, his hair all askew, and his accent as broad as the Kirby Theatre's stage. At times, I could hear echoes of Peter Sellers' portrayal of Inspector Jacques Clouseau in the 1963 film, The Pink Panther ("Does your daahg baahte?") As an actor, Barker is so versatile that he can play leading man and clown all in the same season! And a tall, lanky Jonathan Finnegan's portrayal of Abraham Slender involves mispronunciations too, along with his playing a whistle or trying to get a ball on a string to land in a cup! He may be a gentleman by station but not in demeanor. [Above: Mistress Quickly (Kristie Dale Sanders) chastises Sir Hugh Evans (Ames Adamson) Photo © Jerry Dalia]
David Cryer's Justice of the Peace Robert Shallow spends most of his time trying to maintain that peace; Raphael Nash Thompson, a friendly bear of a Host of The Garter Inn, schmoozes with his customers while keeping abreast of what's going on around town. Rachel Felstein is a lovely Anne Page, about to traded like a horse by a mother and father to different candidates, when all she wants is to marry the noble Fenton, a handsome, earnest James Costello. As Falstaff's servant/sidekicks, Javon Johnson (Bardolph), Jason Paul Tate (Pistol) and Ryan McCarthy (Nym) connive against their former master too in revenge for being let go from his household! Felix Mayes does double duty as the servants Robin and John Rugby, the latter aiding Mistress Ford in her duplicity. Young William Harding does well in a brief scene as the Pages' son. Julian Gordon’s depiction of the servant Peter Simple is true to the hapless young man’s name! [Above: Doctor Caius (Jon Barker) conspires with John Rugby (Felix Mayes). Photo © Jerry Dalia]
The Merry Wives of Windsor may not be one of Shakespeare's finest comedies, but Director Bonnie J. Monte keeps the action moving steadily and the hilarity at a consistently high level. Written mostly in prose, he play's lack of poetic language and almost three-hour length can make it a tough slog for theatergoers, but the performances by this stellar cast keep us on track, despite the action's being difficult to follow at times. But pay attention to the two married couples, the sweet young thing and her three suitors, the cunning Mistress Quickly and, of course, Sir John Falstaff, and you'll be thoroughly entertained by their machinations and talent!
The Merry Wives of Windsor will be performed at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Ave., in Madison through Sunday, December 27th. Give the gift of talent this holiday season. Teenagers will be very amused by its physical comedy and ribald humor. For information and tickets, call the box office at 973.408.5600 or visit www.ShakespeareNJ.org online.