The Merry Wives of Windsor, written by William Shakespeare in approximately 1597, is the famous British playwright’s only play to deal exclusively with the Elizabethan middle class and thus is considered one of his most “realistic” comedies. The production playing at Halifax’s Shakespeare By the Sea until September 2nd is a delightful and silly romp fueled by fun hearted mischief, a vain knight and a jealous husband.
The story centres on Sir John Falstaff, a fat, vain and boastful knight, who decides to woo the wives of two wealthy gentlemen with identical love letters. The ladies, Mistresses Page and Ford, quickly learn of his plot and decide to wreak havoc on him in fun-hearted revenge. Their plans become even more complicated when Mr. Ford, who is prone to jealousy, believes that his wife’s interest in the knight is proof of her impending infidelity. There is also a subplot concerning Mistress Page’s daughter, Anne, and three suitors who have come to seek her hand in marriage.
In this production, directed by Elizabeth Murphy, there are some really fantastic and fun performances and the fast paced show is filled with silliness, frivolity and fantastic energy as well as a great use of the wide space around the audience in the Cambridge Battery. Tom Gordon Smith plays Falstaff with hilarious pompous and lascivious charm. We delight in seeing his character tortured by the wives, but Smith still manages to “endeer” us to him as well. Kathryn McCormack and Kimberley Cody play Mistress Ford and Mistress Page respectively, and the chemistry in their friendship, as they plot their mischief with zeal, is magnetic. McCormack and Cody give these women a beautiful strength of character rare in Elizabethan plays. It is always clear that they are perfectly able to handle all the men in their lives, and they are endlessly amused by how easily tricked, lured, and then appeased they are. Cody is particularly hilarious when Mistress Page is “acting out” their plots and McCormack’s reactions are just as entertaining.
Marty Burt plays Mr. Ford, the perpetually jealous husband, who goes to absurd lengths and foolery in attempt to catch his wife in the act with Falstaff. Burt gives a lovely humanity to Ford, his fear at being cuckolded is expressed with genuine misery and an ardent love and care for his wife that allows the audience to be sympathetic to him. Sèbastien LaBelle is wonderful as the proud French Doctor Caius. Simon Rainville also gives a stand-out performance as the nerdish, diffident and awkward Master Slender and his announcement to the audience about the 15 minute intermission is one of the funniest and imaginative moments in the production.
The biggest challenge I had with this production was wrapping my head around Elizabeth Murphy’s concept. The play seems to be set in the 1950s, but with the mixture of a French doctor, a Southern American preacher and a shell shocked soldier, I wasn’t sure where we were or what unified these particular people together. Riley Raymer gives one hundred percent to her Mrs. Quickley, a French maid who isn’t French, but her over-the-top buffoonery, along with the antics of Jeremy Hutton’s Bardolph, seem to belong in a different play than the more realistic one inhabited by Smith, McCormack, Burt and Cody. This was also true of Emma Laishram’s Rugby, who barely has any lines, but whose physicality is reminiscent of someone in a Disney cartoon or a Dickens novel. I wanted to see and hear more from this Rugby, but I was unsure why a character who isn’t given time in the spotlight should have such an odd and grandiose presence. Also, at times I found the only slight changes in costumes of the actors playing multiple parts confusing.
In all, The Merry Wives of Windsor is filled with fun, frivolity and cavorting that makes for a lovely afternoon or evening in Point Pleasant Park. There’s just a week of shows left, you won’t want to miss it!
The Merry Wives of Windsor plays at The Cambridge Battery in Point Pleasant Park August 29th and September 1st at 7pm. The Company suggests a donation of $15.00 payable at the door. Bring your own blankets or chairs or rent a chair for an additional $2.00.