Monday, 25 June 2012

Merry Wives a *revenge* for Shrew ?

Merry Wives just might have been designed as a cheeky antidote to the chauvinist climate that reigned in Shrew -- perhaps -- as Wives was written a decade later. Not only that, but BillyBard jumps from aristocratic Italy to a middle-class 16th century Elizabethan English town called Windsor and shows us women not only equal to but superior to their men, just like Elizabeth I was.

In a comic chorus of comeuppance, BB pits a penniless but overfed ex-knight Sir John Falstaff against the clever machinations of Mistresses Ford and Page. Why? Because Falstaff is addlepated enough to send identical love letters to them both in attempts to poach their husbands' cash in the bargain.  First (multi-gender) rule of the hustle, then as now : wooing two who are best friends is risky sequentially, nevermind simultaneously. 

In response, the wives gleefully plot revenge on this loonie fallen- warrior. And because Mrs. Ford's husband is unquenchably jealous, he believes his wife is actually succumbing to Falstaff's seductive schemes. So she plots "Gotcha!" for him, too, possibly getting even for Shrew's Kate.  I.e. patriarchal rules of monarch, court and the 2nd estate no longer govern absolutely. Wives gives us a couple of clever bourgeois women whose objective is minor malice. What the audience gets is mirth

We also get, of course, the customary BB sub-plot schtick of multiple suitors pursuing a principal's daughter; disguises; ruses; woodborne tinkerbells; gay *marriages* -- the usual fun, sport & amusement in a show that usually runs close to 165 minutes of stage action.

Purposely set by director Johnna Wright in a Windsor, Ontario karaoke pub in 1968, no question all the mischief, matchmaking, canoodling, multiple identities, sight gags, deceptions and feints of some two dozen characters are designed to place 2012 viewers closer to Fawlty Towers and Desperate Housewives than to jolleye olde Englande.  

As always it is the language of Shakespeare that is the challenge to be "got" by both actors and audiences : to be delivered crisply and with appropriate pauses and cadence -- but also with precisely the right emPHAsis on each and every sylLABle. All the more critical with the conceit of thrusting the action 400 years forward into a suburban Canuck (Red Wings...?) milieux. 

Too, malapropisms -- like their cousin puns, often a pretty sketchy form of sniggery -- take centre stage in this play, one that academics often refer to as the "least poetic" of BB's scripts. Still, my WS guru A. L. Rowse declares straight-up: "This perennially successful play is the most purely amusing, from beginning to end, that Shakespeare ever wrote."    

So ker-THUNK ! goes the gauntlet from Prof. Rowse directly at the feet of Wright's Bard-bunch. No question the talent displayed in delivering BB's cleverness off-the-tongue will determine the degree of success the cast and director have in making us LOAO or not.

Opens June 28th at the Studio Stage at Bard on the Beach in Vanier Park.


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