Encore Michigan

MSF’s ‘Merry Wives’ visits ’80s with Real Wives of Windsor

Review August 15, 2022 David Kiley

CANTON, MI–Interpreting Shakespeare into a modern setting is always a fraught project. So, when Michigan Shakespeare Festival moved The Merry Wives of Windsor into the Reagan years with nods to Xanadu, the film Say Anything, Benny Hill and more.

Fortunately, MSF has the production and directorial talent, and casting, to pull it off.

The Merry Wives was first published in 1602. The play is considered one of Shakespeare’s lesser-regarded works among literary critics. There is a tradition that has posited the belief that Merry Wives was written at the request of Queen Elizabeth I after seeing Henry IV Part 1, in which Sir John Falstaff is seen, and the Queen asking that the character be featured in another play in which he is in love.

At the start of the play, Falstaff (Joe Foust), depicted here as a down-on-his luck actor/comedian who has been in some sit-coms and the like, arrives in Windsor short on funds. He decides to seek a better financial situation by courting two wealthy married women­–Mistress Ford (Lydia Hiller) and Mistress Page (Demetria Thomas). Falstaff sends the women identical love letters and asks his servants – Pistol (Sara Long) and Nym (Adonis Perez Escobar) – to deliver them. When they refuse, Falstaff sacks them. In an act of revenge, the men tell the husbands of Ford (Ian Geers) and Page Jonathan Wallace) of Falstaff’s intentions. Page is unconcerned, but the jealous Ford persuades the Host of the Garter Inn to introduce him to Falstaff as a ‘Master Brook’ so that he can find out Falstaff’s plans.

Meanwhile, three different men are trying to win the hand of Page’s daughter, Anne Page (Faith Berry). Mistress Page would like her daughter to marry a prosperous Doctor Caius (Sam Hubbard), a French physician, whereas the girl’s father would like her to marry Master Slender (Craig Ester). Anne, though, is in love with Master Fenton (Victor Yang).

The Merry Wives hatch their own plan to deal with Falstaff. Alice Ford meets with him alone. Mistress Page arrives with word that Master Ford will soon arrive on the scene. Nowhere to hide, Falstaff first comically tries to hide behind the couch cushion, and then he is stuffed into a laundry trolly full of stinky clothes and linens, wheeled out and dumped in the Thames.

Later Falstaff meets the Merry Wives in the woods with plans to sleep with both of them. The who town of characters shows up though to present a fairy pageant meant to torment Falstaff and his conniving ways, and Anne and Fenton are married, thus tying up all the loose ends.

The setting of the play in the 80s is fun and well executed. Falstaff is seen in TV series posters like Silver Spoons, a show called “Bob’s Your Uncle” and a poster that specifically is reminiscent of a character played by British comedian Benny Hill. Master Slender is depicted in homage to Fred Berry’s “Rerun” character from TV show What’s Happening, always with a boombox and doing jivey dance spins as he talks. Near the end of the play, there is an homage to John Cusack’s iconic pose from “Say Anything” in which he is dressed in a trench-coat holding a boombox above his head.

Joe Foust is superb as Falstaff, nailing the line between true Shakespearean comic stagecraft and going too far. His physical comedy and the way he delivers jollies with his facial looks nearly steals the play. Directed by Robert Kauzlaric, the rest of the ensemble revels in their 80s romp. Kauzlaric describes this production as the equivalent of “neighbors coming together in michief and merriment.” To that end, there is a whiff of “Real Housewives” in this adaptation of Merry Wives.

Evan Frank created a flexible and modern set design that works as a nice canvas for this taklented ensemble. Aly Renee Amidei procured and designed an array of clever costumes from Falstaff’s furry animal costume we see in the second act to Slender’s urban hip-hop look to Mistress Ford’s slinky, sexy frock. Christopher Kriz put together an effective playlist of musical nods to the Reagan0-Bush years from Prince to Olivia Newton-John. David Blixt handled fight direction and intimacy coordination. Janice Blixt is the Producing Artistic Director.

One more chance to see this fun Shakespearean romp. Get tickets at this link. https://ci.ovationtix.com/36533. And one more weekend to see any of the wonderful MSF offerings.

Week of 9/19/2022

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