Making merry outdoors with the Bard
The first word in “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is “merry” (OK, technically it’s “the,” but come on) and Paul Hopper’s Water Works Theatre production never loses sight of that.
Shakespeare’s tale of two women who employ inventive pranks to give Sir John Falstaff his comeuppance receives a staging that’s pretty inventive itself, beginning with the premise that somewhere Down South sometime in the 1800s a troupe of actors arrives at a barn to put on a show.
And arrive they do, whooping and stomping down the outdoor aisles with guitars, banjo, mandolin, washboard and harmonica and singing “Jimmy Crack Corn and I Don’t Care.” We know they’re down south by their accents.
They get right down to Shakespeare after that, with some lively directorial touches, and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” entertains pretty much as it has for the last 400 years. The main plot – there are subplots numerous but negligible (blame the author) – involves the plump and dissolute Falstaff who, finding himself low on funds and fancying himself a ladies’ man, aims to address both issues by seducing a couple of rich married women, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. They, being (A) virtuous and (B) no fools, have other plans.
Merry they are, but any production of “Merry Wives” depends upon its Falstaff, and they’ve got a good one in Richard Redman. He’s got the heft for the part, and he locates the character’s essential magic: Falstaff is full of himself, behaves scandalously and doesn’t seem to treat anyone with respect but we like him anyway.
Sara Catheryn Wolf (Mistress Page) and Lynda Berge (Mistress Ford) take obvious delight in their efforts to give Falstaff what he’s got coming, gleefully overacting when they want a hidden Falstaff to “overhear” them, innocently flipping their fans when jealous Mr. Ford (Peter Prouty) thinks they’re up to something.
Prouty and Tobin Hissong are a nicely delineated study in contrasts as the loudmouth Mr. Ford, pathologically mistrustful of his innocent wife, and the genial, unruffled Mr. Page, justifiably confident of his wife’s fidelity.
Directorially, Hopper comes up with some superb bits of business. In one scene, the character Dr. Caius (Chris Mick) writes a note with a quill pen using the back of his servant (Alastar Dimitrie) as a desk; for ink, Mick pokes Dimitrie’s finger with the quill to draw blood; long after the letter is completed, Dimitrie intermittently sucks his wounded finger.
And the way a few crates, a couple of umbrellas, a horse collar and a handful of incidental actors become a moving tableau of a buggy ride is better seen than described.
All in the name of merriment.