An Innovative Production: OSF's Merry Wives Of Windsor

Sep 6, 2017

There is a special pleasure in being in the audience for the opening of the Elizabethan Theatre at OSF. For many people, open air Shakespeare is the very heart of the Festival, tapping into its historical roots. For others, it is an opportunity to dress up, to catch the first Green Show, to see and to be seen!

This particular season of plays under stars began with The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Dawn Monique Williams, a production which was a complete delight, a riot of color, of energy and of joy. 

I had allowed my reading of the text to obscure what I might expect on the stage.

This was the only Shakespeare production played outdoors this year, and although the costumes were based upon those of Shakespeare’s own day, and the set and lighting were relatively simple (no video projections), it would not be true to claim that it was entirely ‘traditional’ in style.

Firstly, it had modern songs, lots of songs, and dancing too: the music was drawn from popular songs of the 1980s, and was artfully woven into the themes of the plot (as well as furnishing opportunities for stand-out big numbers to open and close each half of the play). For me, one of the delights of the opening night was listening to the younger members of the audience as they came out of the theatre arguing about what songs they had heard (“There was definitely Cyndi Lauper!”—I think there was, and probably Blondie, and Alice Cooper, and certainly Talking Heads). OSF might consider running an online competition to spot all the songs and their original artists? There is no doubt that this production will help to draw in that younger audience for Shakespeare which the Festival needs to cultivate, or at least those willing to forget that these artists are in their 70s!

Secondly, it had a female Falstaff, the magnificent K T Vogt, whose costumes all came complete with a ludicrous, detachable codpieces—proving that the staff was not the only thing about Falstaff which was false. This gender reversal meant, among other things, that when Sir John was disguised as the Old Woman of Brentford, we saw a woman playing a man, dressed as a woman...turning the conventions of Elizabethan theatre on their heads. This was a tour de force performance, well deserving of the resounding applause from the audience at the end. Indeed, one distinctive feature of this production was that the audience was on its feet even before the show had ended!

To be honest, this is not a play I have ever warmed to when I have read it. The plotting had seemed to me overcomplicated and hard to follow (especially the potential law suits near the beginning of the play), and the devices of the wives against Falstaff potentially cruel. I think I was foolish enough to have expressed those views to this present director in a conversation last year: silly me! I was so concerned with issues of social class, with the tensions between the aristocratic Falstaff and Fenton, the middle class Pages and Fords and the lower, servant class, that I lost sight of what is at the heart of the play. I had allowed my reading of the text to obscure what I might expect on the stage.

In watching this innovative production, I realized that the play is as much a celebration of clever women as it is a discussion about class. At its heart are the victorious women (Vilma Silva and Amy Newman on great form as the merry wives) whose plots succeed, and the stupid, defeated men whose plots fail. In the case of Falstaff, that defeat does indeed include a form of emasculation; however, since we know that the actor is really female, it is a symbolic emasculation, and the potential for cruelty reduced to a vanishing point. Congratulations to Dawn Monique Williams for the clarity of her vision of this play and for bringing that vision to theatrical reality to educate, among others, this silly man.

There was, however, one respect in which this production did follow original practice: it exploited the possibility that the audience was familiar with the company members and their roles in other productions. In this case, the actors who played the young lovers trying to overcome obstacles to their romance (Jamie Ann Romero and William DeMeritt), had played the parallel roles of Viola and Will in Shakespeare in Love. That the lovers achieved their objective demonstrated that even a clever woman like Mistress Page could be outwitted if she had an even cleverer daughter.

It was a pleasure to watch Cristofer Jean (Slender) and Jeremy Peter Johnson (Caius) as the unsuccessful suitors for Anne Page, and to see Rex Young as absurdly jealous Ford/Brook. So many silly men...I will never again be able to hear “Psycho Killer” without thinking of them. There were times when Rex Young’s Ford came close to assuming all the manic qualities and mannerisms of John Cleese’s Basil Fawlty—or indeed of John Cleese in just about any role.

And to that list of silly men should be added another man who was played by a woman: Sir Hugh Evans (Sara Bruner), engaging in a pointless and misguided altercation with Caius. Her posturing on the upper level in preparation for the duel/boxing match (!?) with Caius was as good a piece of upstaging as I have ever seen.

Overall, there was such richness and vitality in this production, so much going on on so many levels (literally and metaphorically) that audiences may well have to see the show more than once, and not just to identify the songs. Clever OSF!

Geoff Ridden has taught in universities in Africa, Europe and North America. Since moving to Ashland in 2008, he has become a familiar figure on radio, in the theatre, in the lecture hall and on the concert stage. He is artistic director of the Classic Readings Theatre Company and has a particular interest in adaptations of the plays of Shakespeare. Email classicrereadings@gmail.com