Encore Michigan

Golden Girls meet Billy Shakespeare at Slipstream

Review July 13, 2019 Roy Sexton

FERNDALE, Mich.–“Thank you for bein’ a frieeeee-eeeeehnd” goes the familiar refrain from the theme song to the ever increasingly ubiquitous Golden Girls. If you had told my 8th grade self, watching these grande dames of stage and (small) screen – who, back in the mid-1980s, were enjoying a third, nay fourth, acting career resurgence–that they would be as relevant and beloved 30 years later with reruns airing around the clock, their own action figures, an empire of nostalgic collectibles, and even a LEGO set, I would have scoffed. Scoffed, I sayeth!

Now, if you had further told my pretentious, Shakespeare-loving college self that one day a sharp and irreverent Metro Detroit theatre collective would leverage Falstaff-focused comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor as a vehicle to celebrate all things Dorothy, Rose, Blanche, Sophia, Stanley, and, well, cheesecake, I would have been dumbfounded (and mildly intrigued).

(In all transparency, I played jealous hubby Master Ford in a production of Merry Wives at Ohio State in 1997 that was inspired by P.G. Wodehouse. Like I said: pretentious. I know no one asked, but I volunteered that info anyway.)

Picture it: Ferndale, 2019. Director (and founder) Bailey Boudreau has delivered a light summer soufflé with just the right pinch of zeitgeist in Slipstream’s newest production Merry Wives of Windsor Miami. If you want to escape the summer heat with a blessedly breezy 70 -minute lark that is as much arch sitcom as pithy Bard, don’t miss this show.

People can be far too reverential where Shakespeare is concerned; we don’t need three hours, carefully curating every side character and extraneous subplot. Shakespeare was the Netflix of his day – populist entertainment. Boudreau and his company wisely realize that playing fast and loose with the material, while miraculously preserving the language and major plot points with only the most minor (and witty) of winking contemporary adds wins the day.

The only downside to Boudreau’s approach is that the very structure of Merry Wives prevents the audience from witnessing the Wives/Girls all assembled for a skosh too long. As the play opens, there are more than a few intertwining subplots:

  • Young suitors pursuing Ms. Anne Page (a pitch perfect Luna Alexander expertly channeling Rue McLanahan as Southern-fried Blanche Devereaux)
  • A money hungry intermediary Mistress Quickly (Linda Rabin Hammell having the time of her life as Estelle Getty as impish Sophia Petrillo)
  • A pair of identical letters written to happily married Mistress Ford (a happy-go-lucky Mandy Logsdon as Betty White as daffy Rose Nylynd) and Mistress Page (ever-poised Jan Cartwright as Bea Arthur as queen bee Dorothy Zbornak) by lecherous Sir John Falstaff (a spot on Patrick O’Lear with a lovely zest of nuanced camp as Herb Edelman as oafish Stanley Zbornak). BTW, Falstaff was a character so popular in Shakespeare’s history plays that he got his own “spinoff” in Merry Wives … you can’t get more “sitcom” than that!
  • An obsessively jealous husband Master Ford (a house-afire Ryan Ernst) who thinks it would be a wise idea to disguise himself as a rich old codger to trick his wife into cheating on him–with himself–to prove how unfaithful she is. Paging Darrin Stevens (from a different show altogether).

Given all of that set up, eating up the first 20 minutes or so, the production takes a while to sort the conceit of Golden Girls-homage from the fussy Shakespearean business. It all aligns in due course, so just be patient with yourself, whether you are familiar with the original play, with The Golden Girls, with both, or with neither. Boudreau adds a clever framing device wherein the “studio audience” is hustled from Slipstream’s cozy lobby to the back performance space by a harried, headset wearing production assistant, doubling as the narrative-device character Simple (an eager and energetic Grace Trivax). It sets just the right tone for what is to unfold.

I might also add that, intentional or no, Merry Wives and the very nature of the piece couldn’t be timelier: empowering women to upend toxic masculinity (controlling husbands, manipulative suitors, philanderers, and sexual predators) through wit and wisdom, collaboration, and a good dose of shaming. There’s a nice bit of #MeToo underpinning the enterprise. That also aligns with the very progressive nature of The Golden Girls. It was a show ahead of its time, on its surface a simple bit of comic escape, but underneath a fairly biting critique of misogyny, ageism, homophobia and classism.

Transitional music cues are lifted directly from the original show (which is a sweet touch), and costuming from Tiaja Sabrie is as 80s as it gets. Of particular note, the styling (hair, makeup, clothes) for Blanche/Anne, Dorothy/Mistress Page, and Stanley/Falstaff is broadcast-ready, immersing those characters (and the audience) in the look and feel of our beloved TV icons.

Merry Wives of Windsor Miami is a summer garden party, messy at times, riotous at others, completely unforgettable, and well worth your attendance. I suspect the cast will settle into a wonderful rhythm as the run proceeds, not unlike the finest situation comedy casts of yore. In addition to the principals, Jake B. Rydell, Tiaja Sabrie, and Alex “Cookie” Isenberg all bring heart and light to their supporting roles. 

Shout out to the marketing materials on this show, as well, which cleverly set the tone for what you are about to witness. Jan Cartwright’s photography and the design by Esbee Creative are the right mix of Reaganomic-era kitsch and South Florida joie de vivre, lovingly mimicking the look and style of TV ads for the original series.

I would be remiss if I didn’t highlight the performances of Luna Alexander and Patrick O’Lear. It is a delicate tightrope to walk to make Shakespearean language understandable to an impatient modern ear, to imitate famed sitcom characters imprinted on our collective consciousness without devolving into caricature, and to keep the narrative moving apace so the audience doesn’t know what hit ‘em. Alexander and O’Lear both pull that hat trick off with aplomb.

For myself, I could watch Alexander read the phone book (do they still print those?) as McLanahan, all gummy smile, wild eyes, throaty voice, elongated vowels, and mincing walk. She even stays gloriously in character from the wings where Blanche, Rose, Dorothy, and Sophia all watch the action unfold from directors’ chairs. It’s a high-flying act, and she nails it. Tens across the board.

See you at the Rusty Anchor!

Week of 12/9/2019

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