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The Merry Wives of Windsor

A Shakespeare That's Outa Sight, Man

Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, Howard County Center for the Arts Black Box Theatre, Ellicott City, Md.
Saturday, February 22, 2014, Second row center
Directed by Ian Gallanar

Falstaff in brown leather jacket and brown pants and shirt and hat holding a bagged liquor bottle holds the hands of Mistress Ford in green-patterned  knee-length dress and brown purse, and Mistress page in white polka dot red thigh-length dress, holding a bag of groceries, with hanging planters of ferns behind.
Falstaff (Gregory Burgess) greets Mistress Ford (Kate Michelsen Graham, left) and Mistress Page (Lesley Malin) and as they head for dinner at the Page's home in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

Here's a premise of great promise: setting William Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor in Washington, D.C., circa 1978, and Falstaff is a Marion Barry figure or an Abscam-tainted congressman. It was the time of funk when the nation's capitol was developing its own cultural scene around the singular sounds of go-go music and Chuck Brown while the upscale suburbs along the Potomac grew into insular enclaves of carefree consumerism. Such a premise capitalizes on the play's themes and characters, gives Shakespeare's cultural commentary modern relevance, and, as produced by a Capitol Region theater company, would become singularly local.

Such a premise I was anticipating with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's 1970s-era production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The fact that we received 10 percent off a delicious Italian meal at Ellicott City's Portalli's restaurant for telling the waiter "It's funk-tastic!" got the evening off to a promising start, and at the entrance to the theater lobby, a turntable played an old R&B LP. Cool. But as we turned to enter the theater, there on the wall were the album covers for Jethro Tull's Aqualung and Yes's Fragile along with Earth, Wind, and Fire's Open Our Eyes. Uh-oh.

To be clear, I'm a huge Tull fan and still list Aqualung among my Top 10 all-time favorite albums, but I feared that we were not really go-going to D.C. and time had slipped out of joint. The decade of 1970 is divided into two distinct eras, the first half, during which Aqualung and Fragile were released, was the denouement of the "The Sixties," which essentially ended with the Nixon presidency in 1974, the year Earth, Wind, and Fire dropped Open Our Eyes. With that, we hustled our way into the Boogie Wonderland '70s of legend. In this production, we're treated to live performances of Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" (1972), Carl Douglas's "Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting" (1974), and James Taylor's "You Can Close Your Eyes" (1971). As the fairies, wearing Nixon masks, dance around Hern's Oak at the play's climax, Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" serves as the soundtrack, a 1968 release already considered a joke by the time the '70s got under way.

Which is, really, what this production is all about. Shakespeare's social satire, with many of its scenes cut or condensed, becomes nothing more than a send-up of all things Seventies. It's a simple joke with anything that existed in a year that starts with the numbers one, nine, and seven as the punchline: the lava lamp, the plastic portable record player, the bean bag, the sling chair, the artificial turf carpet covering the stage, the hand slaps, the hip bumps, the peace sign medallion dangling around Master Page's neck, the glass beads, the platform shoes, the ugly, bright, checkered pants on the men, the two-foot-long eyelashes on the women (Mindy Braden is both costume and props designer). Mistress Quickly and Fenton talk about Anne on cradle telephones (hers red, his white), Falstaff uses cassette tapes for his love letters, and Dr. Caius types out his challenge on a manual typewriter (but not a Correcting Selectric II). On his second visit to Mistress Ford, Falstaff plays Twister: cue the "Awe, remember Twister?" titters in the audience.

It's a fun reconnection with our past, real or imagined; not so much an insightful connection to Shakespeare's play, though. Many might argue, "What insight?" This is The Merry Wives of Windsor we're talking about, a rush-written sitcom with seen-'em-coming-a-mile-away jokes and a hackneyed plot, a meandering secondary plot, and a worth-cutting-out-altogether subplot. True, it's not Shakespeare at his best, but even Shakespeare at his worst (and this play is not that, either) has its poignant insights into characters, circumstances, and language. And various settings can bring out various aspects of this play. The Royal Shakespeare Company's 1985 production turned the play's composition date of circa 1597 around to set it in 1957, transferring Shakespeare's middle-class suburban fairy tale of the first Elizabethan era into a middle- class, suburban fairy tale of the second Elizabethan era, revealing the play as a commentary on merchant virtue versus noble pretension. The Shakespeare Theatre Company's 2012 production set the play in 1919 Windsor when a bankrupt England was emerging from a great war and the women's suffragette movement was taking hold, similar circumstances of the original play's timeframe and thereby revealing it as a bittersweet chronicle of a society in transition.

Out of a D.C. setting in the disco era would have emerged Falstaff's hedonistic nature and the Windsor population's recreation-centric focus and general disregard for the elite class. It was an era, after all, when a peanut farmer occupied the White House, when sexual attributes became fashion templates and core values, and when the overarching goal in life was to do a little dance, make a little love, and get down tonight. Uh-huh.

This production has hints of that. Master Page (Jeff Keogh) is a self-imagined groovy guy in the manner that parents will try to be as hip as their kids. He is constantly giving some skin and jangling around the parties like Tony Manero casing the dance floor. In portraying Page as a middle-aged, pre–Baby Boomer who thinks he really is super cool—get a load of his far out peace symbol, man—Keogh manages to reveal the character's superficiality without ever coming off as a hypocrite. His merging of Shakespeare's wealthy Windsor merchant with the suburban seventies businessman is as seamless as a polyester jumpsuit.

Gregory Burgess dresses up his Falstaff in brown leather coat, a loud, brown-patterned shirt with gold chain, and a fedora. He's a smooth cat who comes to Mistress Ford in their first tryst to the groove of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." Yet, Burgess's Falstaff has little connection to the fat knight of Shakespearean lore, and he's more Sanford than Super Fly. At most, he's a small-time con with a false sense of privilege that makes him more obnoxiously arrogant than comically delusional.

Vince Eisenson transfers his Slender to the '70s by making him a swaggering puffcake, full of himself but, really, there's not much there. His method of courting Anne Page is to sit on a bench and spread his legs as he talks sports. It's an interesting perspective on the character—rather than an asexual simpleton he's an oversexual simpleton whose only real experience with sex is what he's read in Penthouse—and it has a wonderful payoff when he describes how he was nearly married to "a great lubberly boy." "If I had been married to him, for all he was in woman's apparel, I would not have had him," he says with Rocky logic.

Fenton in foreground talking on white phone, Mistress Quickly in blurred background wearing maids dress talking on phone
Fenton (Gerrad Alex Taylor) discusses his courtship of Anne Page with Mistress Quickly (Bess Kaye) on the telephone in the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor. The production is set in the 1970s and features such nostalgic trappings as a plastic portable record player, lava lamp, and French maid outfit. Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography, Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.

Much of the rest of the cast comprise era-specific archetypes: the Hostess (Kecia A. Campbell) is a beret-wearing African Nationalist, Sir Hugh Evans (Ben Harris) is a New Age youth minister, Fenton (Gerrad Alex Taylor) is the polite black kid in the two-toned bowling shirt, Anne Page (Lisa Davidson) is the always cute teen girl in the sleeveless mini dress who, later, wears a maxi dress, Pollockian in pattern and its many colors, that suggests her tastes were 40 years ahead of her time. Pistol (Frank B. Moorman) and Nym (Joe Grasso)—Bardolph has been dropped—are jean-clad bikers you'd find working a Doobie Brothers concert. Mistress Quickly (Bess Kaye) is dressed in a naughty French maid outfit and flaunts her wherewithal with more brashness than Donna Summer summoned in singing "Love to love you baby." I'm not sure what archetype she is supposed to represent unless it's the sexual side of the Swinging Seventies, but that was on public display in the real Seventies by women wearing necklines plunging to the navel and men wearing form-fitting trousers leaving nothing to the imagination (and sometimes enhancing the imagination).

One character who doesn't fit an era-specific archetype in this production is Master Ford; Michael P. Sullivan makes him timeless. No swinger he, Sullivan's Ford is generally uptight, and his penchant for jealousy springs from pathological insecurity. In his disguise as Master Brook he sports a South Philly attitude, but as Ford struggles to maintain his disguise while Falstaff recounts his escape in the buck basket, Sullivan gleans laughs from the lines rather than the timeframe trappings.

In a play about Windsor wives, it is their husbands who prove to be the Shakespearean highlights in this production. But director Ian Gallanar, the company's founding artistic director and one who has a career-long record of presenting The Bard, seems less concerned with fealty for Shakespeare in this production than taking us back—way back, back into time, when the only people who existed were troglodytes in leisure suits. It's a trip, man. From the preshow when Burgess leads us in "Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting" (complete with getting us to provide the hand-chopped "Hah!"s) to the curtain call danced to The Hustle, we are on a magic carpet ride of nostalgia to that fairy tale time known as The Seventies, and Shakespeare, for the most part, is outa sight.

Eric Minton
March 3, 2014

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