1950s Reimagining of 'Merry Wives' a Rousing Success
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, August 6, 2023
Shakespeare always stands the test of time for some, whereas others find his material more difficult to consume, yet all seemed to have enjoyed the production as they spilled energetically out of opening night of The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Globe's Lowell Davies Festival Theatre.
Though still served with a main course of Elizabethan language, this version, with director James Vásquez at the helm, has been re-set to incorporate a variety of 50s era references (make like a banana and split, James Dean, '54 Mercury, etc.) and with its characters reimagined as well.
In this iteration of the five-act comedy following rotund John Falstaff in his pursuit of Mistresses Ford and Page, the two women are mischievous I Love Lucy-era gossips, eager to troll their would-be suitor while testing the limits of a husband's jealousy. In an attempt to catch his wife in infidelity, Mr. Ford disguises himself as a trenchcoat- and sunglasses-wearing Mr. Brooks, bribing Falstaff to engage Mrs. Ford under the premise that her fall from grace will leave her vulnerable to his romantic advances. The financial incentive convinces John Falstaff to continue to press his suits, despite his continued failed attempts and unwitting vulnerability to the housewives' mischief-making. In a secondary plot line, three men vying for young Anne Page's hand include pharmacist Dr. Caius, a witless and easily swayed Slender, and greaser Fenton.
And, while the shift to delivering Shakespeare through a 50s lens is brave, it really works here. Vásquez astutely leans into the many farcical tropes and slapstick elements intrinsic to the script, pairing them with mannerisms reminiscent of classic television. He leverages the creative skills of light and sound designers Mextly Couzin and Melanie Chen Cole to create a visual and audio fabric of the story. Their integrated effects serve to punctuate key moments, humanize, and drive comedy for the characters, making Shakespeare's language more accessible to a modern crowd.
The play is presented on a rotating So Cal set (by scenic designer Diggle) which includes a classic diner, rec center, motel, and two-story home with a large grassy yard. This design not only has a charming, retro feel, but also is very practical in terms of keeping the story moving; as the show progresses, there are times when the turntable allows us to follow characters from one venue to another seamlessly while others slip away unnoticed through a midstage breezeway. The vibrant color and design scheme evokes memories of sitcoms in the suburbs, with midcentury breeze blocks running the length of the backstage wall and blue umbrella-laden picnic tables framing each the edges.
In keeping with the thematic nature of this iteration, the actors have likewise been robed in midcentury-inspired apparel (costume designer Lex Liang) to match their shifting personas: our Lucy and Ethel (Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford) wear cinched waistlines, heels, and red lipstick, heartbreaker Anne Page has a Kim MacAfee vibe, and the hostess of the Garter runs food on roller skates, for example.
The large ensemble of talented cast members are instrumental in broaching the challenge of giving The Bard a live laugh track and a picket fence. Mrs. Ford (Angela Pierce) and Mrs. Page (Ruibo Qian) are delightfully naughty as they plan and execute mischief on hapless Falstaff (Tom McGowan). Mrs. Quickly (Jenn Harris) can't keep her gossipy lips on topic (or off of other patrons' food!), and Simple (Emma Svitil) wistfully follows Slender about, hoping for a chance to catch his eye.
That said, in truth, each role for this version has been embued with personality, confidence, and pop culture, and the actors all do their parts in setting the scene for a rollicking climax. The cast also includes Matt McGrath, Dion Mucciacito, Jesse J. Perez, Cornell Womack, Jose Balistrieri, Luana Fontes, Camilla Hsieh, Madeline Grace Jones, Sarah Joyce, Becca Lustgarten, Carter Piggee, Jeffrey Rashad, Bernadette Sefic, Vandous Stripling II, Jude Tibeau, Michael Underhill, and Maggie Walters.
"I have to see this again now that I know what it is about," I heard a young audience member note to a friend as she returned her fleece blanket to an attendant. I found myself smiling, thinking that she'd be returning with new seatmates, introducing them to a play that not only has "merry," but also in the live laugh track accompanying it.
The Merry Wives of Windsor runs at The Old Globe through September 3.