Some years ago, I decided that I needed to complete the Shakespeare canon. For a spectator like me, that means only seeing the shows, not acting in them or directing them (I laugh because this is true). As I see several Shakespeare stagings every year, I am ever surprised by the universality as well as timelessness of his works. I mean, after a few centuries, they are not dated (unless the director allows them to be, which is decidedly NOT the goal). I am also occasionally surprised by how my relation to the various plays has changed over the years—the ones I thought I loved I occasionally outgrew, the ones I either did not know or did not much like I grew to appreciate more, and so forth. As of this writing, I have five plays left to see, which seems like a shockingly large number considering how long I have been at it—so, if anyone hears of Henry VI being done anywhere, please let me know. I do mean anywhere, I will travel for this!
I have deliberately been avoiding The Merry Wives of Windsor for years. I glimpsed it once on TV, must have been on Masterpiece Theater, and I hated it. It seemed like a lot of commotion of people running around in bonnets and pumpkin pants, laughing at jokes that made no sense, and the language itself was unintelligible to me. It also had Falstaff, a character many like, but I kind of hate. I just do not find him funny or endearing or charismatic in any way. I just find him annoying.
But, with so few plays left to complete the canon, and with Stratford Festival—the greatest theater in North America, if not the world—staging Merry Wives this season, I decided to bite the proverbial bullet. Spoiler alert: I am glad I did, but I am still not crazy about this play.
Antoni Cimolino, the Artistic Director of the Festival who directed the play, set it in 1953. It was the year the festival was founded by Tom Patterson. Is it weird that I immediately thought that it was the year that Stalin died? Seems like it was a much more carefree year in Canada than in the USSR, but maybe not so much when it came to women’s rights. Frankly, though, I did not find the story to be too offensive in the #MeToo era. Falstaff is lecherous and pushy, but easily confounded and disarmed. Mr. Ford is jealous not like Othello, but like Moliere’s clueless and pompous husband characters. The women outsmart and outplay the men with ease, plus great humor and spirit. So, I am inclined to just view this story as a harmless farce rather than a statement on gender relations.
And what a farce it is—but I am not against farces. I am an easy laugh, but what of it? A peculiar mix of Monty Python and I Love Lucy is not the worst to which a comedy can aspire—and achieve. In this particular production, the stars of Stratford are out in full force. Brigit Wilson as Mrs. Page is just the most luminous wide-eyed Lucille Ball impersonation ever, and I mean that in the best way possible. The incomparable Geraint Wyn Davies is possibly the only Falstaff I can stomach, and he actually made me feel sorry for the fat buffoon at the end. Aww, Geraint with that sparkle in his eyes, his Falstaff exuding the benign mirth that reduces the creep factor almost to zero! And Lucy Peacock as Miss Quickly is channeling the comic relief housekeepers straight out of the Soviet comedies of the death-of-Stalin era, whose kerchief, ankle boots like my grandmother would wear, and intermittent snacking made me feel all warm and fuzzy and nostalgic. Ben Carlson, as the Welsh parson, is the funniest I have ever seen him be–and Ben is usually witty funny, not ha-ha funny, so this was a joy to behold. When he agrees with Mr. Ford that Falstaff in drag as the old woman of Brentford must be a witch because she has whiskers and a beard, I died laughing! (I use this phrase to excess; I guarantee you will see it again.) Graham Abbey as Mr. Ford, while very funny as well, is basically Tartuffe’s Orgon, whom he played on the same stage two years ago. It is not his fault that this part is so similar—after all, I have seen Geraint Wyn Davies play Falstaff before, which is literally the same character. I am just saying it was not a surprise, that’s all.
The Monty Python theme plows through the play in the character of Dr. Caius. Gordon Miller plays him essentially as the French Taunter from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, complete with pronouncing every letter in “knight”. When you hear it, you just can’t unhear it. He even throws in John Cleese’s silly walk. It’s all very funny, but a bit much, including the exaggerated French accent that is at times utterly unintelligible, although every second word is “bugger”.
So, I walked out of the theater not feeling that I saw a Shakespearean play. Is that necessarily a bad thing? I do not think so. I laughed a lot, I had a good time, and that is a value in itself. The fact that a comedy written 400 years ago still retains the humor of a much more modern piece is astonishing. When Antoni Cimolino mentioned that Merry Wives has funnier jokes than Neil Simon he was not kidding (see what I did there?). If there was a deeper message, I might not have gotten it. But, in the words of John Cleese’s Pope in the Penultimate Supper sketch, “I may not know much about art, but I know what I like!”
P.S. E.B. Smith needs to have a bigger part in this play, and really in every play.