The Merry Wives of Stratford

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.

Extroverted Introvert or Introverted Extrovert

Introverts seem to have come into vogue lately.  In my youth, the terms ranged from the mild “shy” to less-than-kind “loner”.  In my culture, being solitary in any form was not a value, because after all, we lived in a collective.  In my language, there is no word for “privacy”.  No, there really isn’t!  I tried to find a translation, and the closest English word I could find was “confidentiality”, which is clearly not the same thing. 

My spouse and children laugh at the notion that I am an introvert.  I am appalled at the notion that they think I am anything but.  Have they not met me?  I love all sorts of solitary activities, I have no concerns with seeing movies and eating out and traveling alone, I have a very small circle of friends, and I hate talking on the phone.  I do enjoy social gatherings, but am never disappointed (and often not-so-secretly thrilled) when they are cancelled.  I have to give myself a substantial pep talk when I go to networking events, and have been seized by panic when I show up and do not know anyone.  I am also not great at small talk.  I thought I fit the memes quite well, until I really started to think about this.  I decided that I really need to understand the terms before I start labeling myself.

I am literally all of these things!

As a child, I was regarded as fairly unfriendly, and I accepted that view of me for the longest time.  I lived with a grandmother who so completely lacked in introspection and ability to derive any joy out of her own company and inner gifts that spending time in solitary pursuits was to her not just unattractive, but unnatural. I loved playing with other kids, I had neighborhood friends, I loved adventures, but I also loved reading and drawing.  I remember being allowed to read only to a certain chapter before being made to go outside to play, and pretending to read slower than I actually did in order to prolong the pleasure.  I just cannot imagine stopping anyone from reading, regardless of their personality type—reading is fundamental!  I was labeled unsociable by my family not because I had a shortage of social activities, but because I did not constantly crave them.  Looking back now, I see that I had a pretty healthy balance in my life, but was persistently pushed off balance.  I was relentlessly driven to one side of the continuum.  Resistance was futile!

Hanging out with people one knows and likes and walking cold into a gathering of strangers are completely different experiences.  One does not have to be an extrovert to love the former, and an introvert to hate the latter.  I am often that last person to leave the party—but only if I am having a good time.  Oh, and I am also a huge talker.  Huge!  Privately, I chastise myself a lot for not listening well, and yet still I cannot shut up once I get going.  But, I have also been known to make my excuses and beat a hasty retreat—if I am having a lousy time.  I have participated, reluctantly, in many a stilted and awkward conversation, and was once asked if I had a disability because I was so quiet.  Does that just make me a person who knows what she likes and does not want to waste time on things she does not?  Aha, what a concept! 

 I learned a new term today—yes, literally today. I am an “ambivert”.  According to Merriam-Webster, that is the person who has both extrovert and introvert characteristics.  It is a social adaptation—the person behaves according to the situation.  On the spectrum, I am in the middle.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  Does freedom come too late?  Well, not necessarily.  All of us are works in progress until the end, and self-understanding is never wasted.  Being armed with this new-to-me term, I shall boldly go, both to parties and on my solitary runs.  Allons-y! 

The Day I Fell in Love with Dr. Who or Father’s Day Part I

It was Father’s Day.  Not “a” Father’s Day, but “the” Father’s Day—the episode of the first season of the sci-fi series’ revival.  This is not a spoiler, because the episode aired in 2005.  Rose Tyler travels back in time and tries to save her father who died in 1987.   

I don’t like science fiction.  I mean, I really, really don’t like science fiction.  I do not read science fiction, I do not watch science fiction.  I walked out of the first “Star Wars” movie on the pretext that my mom was picking me up (before I was driving myself), fell asleep in the movie theater during one of the later prequels in the dead  afternoon (I do not even know which one), never saw any of the “Star Trek” movies or TV episodes, and just generally have always appreciated the genre exclusively for its great soporific quality.  It’s actually my little prescription-free secret—on long flights, instead of popping Ambien, I watch dreary sci-fi and fantasy movies to fall asleep (unless they are showing the original “Wall Street”—I have never been able to stay awake for more than a few minutes of that movie!)

I had a boyfriend who was obsessed with the original “Dr. Who” (this is not the same terrible college boyfriend, but a fairly nice guy law school boyfriend).  He was a geek and of course loved sci-fi.  I was (and still am) a geek as well, but I drew the line in the sand at watching bad ‘70s English TV show about a guy with the long scarf, mad hair, googly eyes, and terrible special effects, doing incomprehensible thing for reasons that were passing understanding.  I pretty much slept through all the episodes that were shown to me. It may or may not have been the beginning of the end of that relationship.

So having never cared for any of this, and having, in fact, a somewhat self-congratulatory attitude about being intentionally ignorant about this segment of pop culture, I found myself, quite unexpectedly, watching the 21st century regeneration of the good Doctor. 

Something happened.  Maybe my kids started watching it, and they were old enough to offer a valuable opinion (it happens!).  Maybe there was some hype that led to some curiosity.  Maybe I pressed the wrong icon on Netflix.  Maybe the trailers were good.  But still, a couple of seasons have passed, because at the time I started watching, the first of the modern Doctors’ time has already passed.

Tardis in London

And so I slogged through the first several episodes on my Kindle.  Tiny portable TV that you can watch everywhere, including in the bathroom, but also contains a giant library of books, the Kindle is, to my mind, the most spectacular technological invention of my lifetime.  I never wanted to get it, but once it came to me one year as a Christmas present, it was love at first sight.  So I was carrying my Kindle around watching sci-fi, and thinking, who AM I?  The episode about mannequins coming to life (kind of funny), one about some aliens (definitely stupid!), one about traveling back in time and meeting Charles Dickens (ooh, I like that!), a few more aliens (OK, I think I am going to be stopping pretty soon here, aliens are super-boring to me), and then…

Father’s day…Rose’s father was run over by a car when she was just an infant.  She never knew him.  Suddenly, she travels back in time with the Doctor and meets her father.  Of course, her instinct is to save him and to get to know him.  Because, like Rose, I never really knew my father (spoiler alert:  he did NOT die when I was an infant, and as of this writing, continues to be very much alive), this story hit me right where it hurt.  Except I never expect it to hurt, until it does…  Unlike some other deficiencies of my life, I am not super-fixated on having grown up fatherless.  I do not know anything different, as simple as that.  I grew up without a father, but also without siblings, without a dog, without figure skates (I really wanted figure skates!), but with wonderful neighbors and friends, a cat, a bicycle, etc.  I mean, you have some things, and you do not have others, which is the way of the world.  But every time I see a show not just about a missing father—because a missing father is merely a fact that in and of itself is not worth mentioning, to my mind—but about a father that was lost and now is found, it touches my heart.  Because deep down, all my life, I have hoped, without ever daring to give that hope a name, that I would have a second chance with my own earthly father.  And seeing that episode of the heretofore farfetched, phantasmagorical, and often downright silly show, about a girl getting that second chance, made me love all of “Dr. Who.  And even the fact that Rose was not able to save her father and live happily ever after with him by her side (because that would wreck the whole balance of time, of course) made me love it even more, because life is never that simple, and father-daughter relationships, and non-relationships, are fraught.  But sci-fi is great escapism—and when it’s great drama to boot, well, let the binge watching begin!