By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
Dance party! You will never get a more spirited welcome into a play than you do at the start of the Tudor screwball currently hustling across the stage in the Freewill Shakespeare Festival’s summer season in the park.
Resistance is futile, people. C’mon. Even those of you who don’t move to the metre of the iamb for some weird reason can’t resist … disco! Not for long. Welcome to Ashley Wright’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, the second of the alternating Freewill offerings this summer (with The Merchant of Venice).
The party-hearty Host of the Garter Inn (Jesse Gervais), who’s wearing plaid bellbottoms so shriek-y they could probably dance by themselves, is spinning the tunes. And, hey, everybody in Windsor is there — including the big guy himself.
That would be Sir John Falstaff (Robert Benz), the randy overripe boozehound and ladies’ man, back from his ignominious rejection by Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays. There’s an apocryphal but persistent story that Queen Elizabeth I was so taken with the fat knight that she passed along her desire to see “Sir John in love.”
Shakespeare could take a hint from a big sponsor (a practice unheard of in the modern theatre as we know). And, as the completely unsubstantiated legend has it, voilà! Just 14 days later there he was: the dissolute knight had landed on his feet in a bustling market town just outside London, rubbing shoulders (and other body parts) with the middle-classes, in Shakespeare’s only suburban comedy.
Falstaff’s misadventures in Windsor, as the (ample) butt of a series of prankish set-ups, are powered by venality (he’s strapped for cash) and by his bloated certainty, backed up by absolutely nothing, that two well-do-to wives are smitten with him.
Mistresses Ford (Belinda Cornish) and Page (Nadien Chu) compare notes: “why this is the very same! the very hand! the very words!”. And, in true screwball fashion, they amuse themselves (and us) by egging him on. In the process, they score the bonus fun of enraging Mistress Ford’s insanely jealous hubby (John Ullyatt), who pops his cork every time.
Director Ashley Wright, a note-worthy Falstaff in his time, has entered the ‘70s disco era (password: polyester) for his rambunctious, very funny production. It’s a perfect playground for the gallery of comic grotesques, manic loons, buffoons, and zanies who revolve through the oddball collection of subplots in this kooky one-off of a play.
And it’s a field day for designer Megan Koshka who decks them out in a giddy collection of ruffled shirts, harvest gold pants hiked up well past the point of no return, a nonpareil collection of acid-hued party plaid. Falstaff’s suit is a punch-line show-stopper.
The main plot, to speak gravely of something as light as air, is a series of schemes to lure Falstaff into farcically compromising positions so the wives can send him careening off in a panic, in ever more undignified circumstances. And the complicity between Mistresses Ford and Page, who dissolve into laughter at every triumph, is one of the delights of the production. The two wives have a nice edge of contrast, too: the breezier elegance of Cornish’s Mrs. Ford to the perkier bustle of Chu’s Mrs. Page.
As Falstaff, the man of the hour, Benz conveys an unassailable, unsquelchable confidence that makes him irresistible to pranksters like the wives, and the pert chatterbox housekeeper Mistress Quickly (the charmer Stephanie Wolfe). Even when he gets the heave-ho into the Thames in a laundry basket, his wording remains lofty: “You will know by my size that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking.”
His nemesis, or vice versa, is the raging Mr. Ford. In Ullyatt’s very funny performance he’s in a constant state of red-alert, ready to burst into flame at every moment. Most amusing of all are his fuming attempts to control his temper long enough to acquire vital information about his wife’s assignations.
Around these principals orbit a whole collection of nutty characters. Ron Pederson is hilarious as the dim and whiney Slender, an adenoidal silly named for the size of his brain, and a distant progenitor of Mrs. Malaprop. Black-eyed from an encounter with Falstaff and co, he actually flinches whenever anyone says anything to him. He’s been badgered by his uncle, Justice Shallow (Julien Arnold in amusing curmudgeon mode), into joining the queue of suitors for the Pages’ captivating daughter Anne (Cayley Thomas). It’s a situation that strikes Slender with terror whenever he comprehends he’s in it.
Another Anne suitor is the preposterous French doctor Caius, played as a preening gallic ninny by Troy O’Donnell. How Dr. Caius ends up in a duel with the Welsh curate (Alex Cherovsky) is something I couldn’t begin to explain.
But then, if it occurs to you to ask yourself something about the narrative complications, there’s Gervais as Host, who is (and has) a hoot, instigating dance interludes so you don’t have to think too much.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Freewill Shakespeare Festival
Directed by: Ashley Wright
Starring: Robert Benz, Belinda Cornish, Nadien Chu, John Ullyatt, Ron Pederson, Julien Arnold, Jesse Gervais
Where: Heritage Amphitheatre, Hawrelak Park
Running: through July 16, even dates and all matinees (The Merchant of Venice is on odd dates