Monday 16 July 2012

Fast chatter, fast stage action with Merry Wives

Quick Plot Summary :

Down on his luck Sir John Falstaff [SJF] proposes to seduce two married women, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page, in order to bilk them of their husbands’ money. The women learn of his duplicity and conspire to expose and humiliate him. Mr. Ford gets a tip his wife will see SJF, so he masquerades as “Mr. Brook” in order to reveal her suspected infidelity. SJF is tricked three times while trying to consummate his seduction, and both the plotting and execution of the tricks drive this comedy to near-farce. The secondary plot involves Mrs. Page’s daughter Anne whom three men pursue to marry -- the awkward Slender, a crazy French Dr. Caius, and her true love Fenton. When the hijinks conclude, it’s another case of all’s well that ends well for Billy Bard’s characters.
All I can say is "Huzzahs, kudos and high-fives to a rollicking night of fun by the whole cast !" In the nearly full house July 15th we who attended were compelled to LOAO repeatedly and consistently.

Director Johnna Wright picked strong performers in nearly every role, but most notably the three who carry the comic weight of the play : Patti Allan as Mistress Quickly nearly stole the show on her own; Ashley Wright as Sir John Falstaff was a jolly nimble elephant-in-the-living room and enunciator par excellence; Amber Lewis as Mistress Alice Ford sustained her role delightfully in this “giddy wives of Vancouver” send-up.

But they were also aided and abetted by righteous turns from Daryl King who geeked the role of Slender wonderfully well; Allan Morgan as Shallow-in-Shriner’s gear; and Anousha Alamian as a South Asian oh-my-goodness-my-golly Sir Hugh Evans.

Fact is the premise of Merry Wives being transported across four centuries is a harder sell than Billy Bard’s ex-knight context in 17th century Blighty. And riskier still when the audience is asked to believe the modern Falstaff’s primary lodgings are in a country western pub (remember it’s set in Windsor, ON during Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s first year in office). But then Langley, BC has long had an odd knee-slap aw shucks personna as well, and Luxton on Vancouver Island near Victoria has its rodeo, so why not imagine some kai-yai element ahoof in Windsor, ON too?

In her Director’s Notes, Wright admits about the music and set : “…It might be better to just go ahead and confess to a secret, long-standing love affair with 1960’s country music.”  Truth will out. Meanwhile musical Director Benjamin Elliott’s arrangements are equal to the program note boast : “The production’s music is a soundscape of modest melodies and country textures, evoking the feeling of a simpler time gone by when all you needed was three chords and an open heart.” Yo pard to that.

No pretense whatever at any sort of traditional treatment, the theatre-in-the-round setting and manic antics of the players telegraphed a vaudeville / slapstick shout-out to the crowd from moment one. Cymbal rattles and thrums on the snare drum were right out of silent movies. Numerous nudge-nudge wink-wink comments to the audience by the actors brought the crowd right into the action.

As well, costume designer Drew Facey gets some of the credit for the constant feel-good spirit on stage along with the cast : the faux-madras red-yellow-green pants on Slender; Simple (played by Elliott) sporting turquoise shirt, check jacket, turquoise shoes; the red/blue stripe suit (perfectly too-short and too tight) on David Marr as Doctor Caius, avec white-rim sunglasses; Falstaff’s check pants, blue vest, and cheap-suit size 56 pale blue tuxedo jacket over white shoes were just ace : would you buy a used come-on from this bloated goof ?

Always my favourite, when an audience forms a horseshoe around the stage, the resulting immediacy of involvement by patrons challenges actors to use their bodies in 360-degree mode so as to not have their backs at the crowd except occasionally. This Director Wright accomplished marvelously well : the stage business and blocking of the characters was superb, particularly that of Miss Quickly and Falstaff. For her part Lewis could have been named “Fingers Ford” for all the hand-jive action she did left right front centre back, also her great on-going giggles when plotting Falstaff’s next comeuppance.

As Frank Ford / Mr. Brooke, Scott Bellis turned in an animated series of rage attacks when being jealous husband. His hipster character Brooke with beat-generation beret, black t-neck and medallion and sideways-v finger-slides didn’t work for me quite so much. On that plane, Lewis’s finger action won hands down.

Kayla Deorksen as Miss Anne Page showed much comic awareness around BillyB’s script for her, while Aslam Husein as Fenton, her husband-to-be, was not quite as robust and macho as I expected from that part : he played it straight -- more a Fonzi sans irony -- than either a James Dean or Brando. As Mistress Meg Page, Katey Wright was game and a good foil for the more dominant character Ford; her hubby George (Neil Maffin) was steady and smiley throughout, a nice phlegmatic contrast to the eruptious Ford.

Pam Johnson’s pub set had fun touches : the familiar red terry-cloth covers on the 24-inch round beer tables anyone 60 or more remembers; the cuckold’s horns adorning the balcony; the beer stubby bottles like Uncle Ben Ginter used to make; the scalloped high-back naugehyde chair used to such comic effect in the opening scene.

Other antics to giggle over : Miss Quickly’s and Shallow’s frug / twist / do-the-monkey dance sequence; Falstaff’s “Baby, Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me” dance with the good-natured matron from the audience; Ford, drunk, singing out “Your Cheatin’ Heart” in Act I and “Sometimes It’s Hard To Be a Woman / Stand By Your Man” in Act II.

Wee quibbles : The Patsy Cline fringe outfits on Ford and Page for the final “open mic” number were a bit on the “much” side. Though they worked all-in-all, didn’t crinolines and fedoras go out about the time John Diefenbaker took office?  The Falstaff fish : corny 50's sitcom bit that sux for cheap laughs. It should go. Dialogue / accents : Todd Thomson’s Clint Eastwoody drawl for Host worked 50% of the time; Dr. Caius’s Frenglish was occasionally hard to decipher.

No question, this is “You can’t go wrong!” Shakespeare. Even before seeing it I recommended to folks that Merry Wives will doubtless be the most “accessible” performance for cross-generation audiences at BotB this summer. My wife put it this way : “If only my high school English teacher had introduced me to Shakespeare this way, through fun music I know, I probably would be more open to other works by him.”  Gaze further on that sentiment, Bard, is what I’d recommend.


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