Saturday 25 June 2016

Merry Wives is 2016-friendly writ large big-time
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : The current re-mount of Johnna Wright's 2012 award-winning Merry Wives of Windsor grabs the Mainstage this year @ the Bard Yard instead of the intimate & cozy Howard Family Stage. This creates challenges for the troupe given memories of the show's palsy-walsy mise en scene from four years back. Viewing the shenanigans from the more distant football bleacher arrangement under the Big Tent makes for a calculably different Vanier Park experience in 2016. But happy to report that what may be lost from the chummy Howard horseshoe is made up for with big-time projection, showiness and satirical silliness that had the crowd whistling and shouting opening night.

Quicky redux on the plot : Down on his luck Sir John Falstaff -- a character who wholly anticipates Monty Python and the Holy Grail -- proposes to seduce two married women, Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page. At 350 some-odd pounds, not likely for jiggery pokery. No, primarily to feed his rotund ego and bilk them of their husbands' money. The women, close chums, learn of his stuplicity. They conspire to expose and humiliate him. Mr. Ford gets a tip his wife has agreed to see Falstaff. An insanely jealous sort, he masquerades as "Mr. Brooke" in attempts to capture her in her infidelities. Three times Falstaff is tricked trying to consummate his seduction of Mrs. Ford, and both the plotting and execution of the women's knackery drive this simple comedy to near-farce levels.

A secondary plot involves Mrs. Page's daughter Anne who three men pursue -- the stupendously daft Slender; a crazy French dithering doctor named Caius; and her true love, an earthy horny goof named Fenton. When the hijinx conclude, it's another case of all's well that ends well for everyone (except the fulsome Falstaff perhaps). In the words of Shakespeare guru A. L. Rowse whose 2,459 page The Annotated Shakespeare anchors my bookcase, "This perennially successful play is the most purely amusing, from beginning to end, that Shakespeare ever wrote."

How it's all put together :  Not bound by copyright strictures, the works of Billy Bard lend themselves to wholesale reimagination and creative interpretation. Director Wright reprises the plot-design conceit she first advanced four years ago : wrested from Elizabethan England, the setting is now 400 years later in Windsor, ON, Canada. And The Garter public house is a 60's country western joint. Fiddlers and guitar pluckers and vigorous keyboard play central roles with ole fave 45 RPM cuts like "Ramblin' Man" and "Your Cheatin' Heart". Says Ms. Wright in the program Director's Notes : "To me, the play is built around an idea of community. The many 'misfits' -- Falstaff included -- are an integral part of that community and are lovingly mocked along with the rest. No one is exempt, yet in the end, everyone is accepted, warts and all. To me this reflects, if not a reality of Canadian culture, at least a way I think we'd like it to be."

What the show brings to the stage : Often the Bard tents tend to be a bit on the quiet-ish side as far as audience reaction is concerned. We are too busy straining our ears to discern and disassemble and then synthesize WS's elegant dialogue in poetry and prose to emit much gutteral reaction to what we're watching. Not here. Not this interpretation and production. The re-set button to its 60's country contemporariness makes this version of Merry Wives probably the most accessible Shakespeare live theatre fans will ever come across. Even for those who believe "If it's 'country' it ain't music!" Quite possibly a bit of a put-off to WS purists, this production is zany good cheer that even the tinnest Shakespeare ear in the house can't help but get the gist of.

Production values that high-light the action : What I claimed a week back was a too-plain set for Romeo & Juliet was transformed cleverly into the backdrop for Merry Wives. Mostly set in The Garter pub, the W.A.C. Bennett 60's red terrycloth beer table covers were resurrected anew from their sepulchre and put once more to good use. The open space in front of the tavern bar on the circular stage morphed easily into the Ford's living room and their front garden avec white picket fence and webbed aluminum summer chairs.

Once again Costume Designer Drew Facey put together percipient and droll early-60's threads for the cast : bobby sox, saddle shoes, crinolines for the gals -- particularly notable the outrageous Hollywood cocktail party sunglasses and bountiful hot ginger wig for Mistress Quickly -- jeans and leathers and assorted country-ish accoutrement for the men. The pea-green velveteen outfit for Dr. Caius, for its part, was an absolute stroke befitting the character's French effeminacy masqued by his magnified & stylized bravado.

Musical Director Ben Elliott supplied whimsical continuity around the country-western motif at play here. The cheeky little guitar riffs spliffed into the soundscape by Anton Lipovetsky and Victor Dolhai were a delight each and all.

Acting pin-spots : The three leads from 2012 evinced even more sparkle in this year's refashioning of their roles than last time out. Perhaps in part to accommodate for the Big Tent venue as opposed to the more chatty and companionable Douglas Campbell stage from before. Amber Lewis as Mistress Alice Ford has her role positively nuanced and keened and aced in all its wide-eyed scheming as well as the flibbergibbetty stage business bits. Katey Wright as Alice's cohort Mistress Meg Page was once more her plucky self. 

Ashley Ford pulls off the weight of Sir John Falstaff's role, lit. & fig., with a gleeful nonchalance and lightness of foot that is quite astonishing to watch from a man of two yards girth as the script describes. Cheeky and boldly naive at the same time, his capture of the spirit of Falstaff is choice.

Scott Bellis. Another go at Francis Ford + "Mr. Brooke". But this performance was a cut above, just priceless physical comedy and pained jealous rage so playfully wrought the audience roars at activity that if witnessed in real life would make folks cringe. Nice!

Ben Elliott as Slender grabs the hardware along with Jennifer Lines as Miss Quickly for sustained silly continuity in-role. His mutterances and malaprops were sheer delight. And David Marr as the aptly named Justice Shallow. Can one ever get quite enough of his intuitive spark? I think not.

Who gonna like : Shakespeare "straight" excites me even though I have to work hard hearing it. Shakespeare "bent" in the ingenious and quick-witted manner Johnna Wright interprets this puckish Billy script is just a hoot to participate in.

This production has the commercial advantage of being an interpretation you could bring Aunt Audrey from Kapuskasing to see and she'd get it wholly & heartily. Again from Director Wright : "There is a warmth and informality to this rollicking tale of intrigue and revenge that makes you feel like you're getting a small glimpse into Shakespeare's youth. These are the people and places of his roots." 

Not a forgettable character in the piece : all deft and energetic and facile at the dramatic task WS put before them. Go. Laugh. Clap. Take your friends. Silly winsome stuff for sure.

Particulars :  Produced by Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, Vancouver, B.C. At the Mainstage tent, Vanier Park. Performances : dozens of shows between now and its September 24th closing night [see for schedules & ticket information]. Run-time 160 minutes including intermission. 

Production crew :  Director Johnna Wright. Costume Designer Drew Facey.  Scenery Designer Pam Johnson.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Choreographer Valerie Easton.  Head Voice & Text Coach Alison Matthews.  Fight Director Nicholas Harrison. Sound Designer Brian Linds.  Production Stage Manager Stephen Courtenay.  Assistant Stage Manager Kelly Barker. Apprentice Stage Manager Elizabeth Wellwood.  Directing Apprentice Rohit Chokhani.  Set Design Apprentice Bronwyn Carradine.

Performers :  Scott Bellis (Francis Ford / 'Mr. Brooke').  Andrew Chown (Dr. Caius).  Daniel Doheny (Fenton).  Victor Dolhai (Bardolph).  Ben Elliott (Slender).  Hailey Gillis (Simple).  Amber Lewis (Mistress Alice Ford).  Jennifer Lines (Mistress Quickly).  Anton Lipovetsky (Host of The Garter Inn).  David Marr (Justice Shallow).  Andrew McNee (Pastor Hugh Evans).  Dawn Petten (Simple).  Tom Pickett (George Page).  Ashley Wright (Sir John Falstaff).  Katey Wright (Mistress Meg Page).


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