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The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Presented by The Theater at Monmouth as a touring production. January 14-February 12, 2005. Directed by Bill Van Horn. Producing director, David Greenham. Music director, Rosalea Kimball. Designed by John Story. Production Stage Manager, Tom Misner. Tech Director/Tour Manager, Taylor Rodgers. With Dennis Price (Sir John Falstaff), Dustin Tucker (Master Ford), Jeri Pitcher (Mistress Ford), Frank Omar (Master Page), Kathleen Nation (Mistress Page), Alice Cutler (Anne Page, Robin, John), Maria Kelly (Mistress

Quickly), Kevin Hoffmann (Father Hugh, Fenton), Gus Schullenburg (Bardoph, Dr. Caius), Abi Van Andel (Nim, Robert), Daniel Carlton (Pistol, Simple, William), Jason Paradine (Slender, Jack Rugby), and John Bromels (Shallow, Host).

Amid the fields and farms of rural Maine, the gabled castle that houses the thirty-five year old Theater at Monmouth rises almost magically. Known for its polished and workmanlike productions of Shakespeare, the repertory company attracts a diverse group of actors and audiences from around the country to its annual summer offerings in a remote corner of New England. This winter the ensemble left its caste for the first time with a full touring production of a rollicking Merry Wives of Windsor, designed to captivate young audiences. After one month performing in the small towns, mountains, and islands of Maine, the company generously offered its final production at the ornate Waterville Opera House, on February 12, as a benefit for a local tsunami-relief project. Selected to participate in the National Endowment for the Arts program created to bring Shakespeare to small communities, the Theater at Monmouth and director Bill Van Horn embraced the challenge of "Shakespeare for a New Generation." A collision among Falstaff, MTV, and "The Honeymooners," this adaptation set on Coney Island, among the billowing laundry of middle class tenements, tangled up and unraveled at high speed.

Like Bill Alexander's award-winning 1985 production for the Royal Shakespeare Company, these merry wives cavorted in the 1950s, amid a blur of saddle shoes, crinolines, and poodle skirts. Recognizable character types gleaned from old TV sitcoms romped through screwball antics, suggesting a direct line from Mistresses Ford and Page to Lucy Ricardo and Ethel Mertz, from Falstaff to Jackie Gleason. In black leather jackets and greased-back hair, the cony-catchers of Coney Island added to the aura of innocent fun; and the "three umpires in the matter" of Falstaff's deer poaching officiated at an opening game of stickball. Punctuated with a cappella duo wop, this bustling performance delivered the kinetic and multifaceted entertainment young people have come to expect. Farce and physical humor delighted these audiences, allowing them ready access to understanding the play despite their unfamiliarity with plot and language.

The 1950s setting was well chosen to translate for American audiences the middle-class, provincial context of Windsor, the only English setting among Shakespeare's comedies. The implicit cultural assumptions of the '50s sitcoms connected the audience to this citizen comedy. And the addition of contemporary American songs, such as "Blue Moon" and "Under the Boardwalk," effectively conveyed the script's celebration of colloquial English prose. Setting and costumes evoked nostalgia for that seemingly simpler time, one which producing director David Greenham described as more "human, more genuine, less cluttered." John Story's flexible set, with a backdrop of the Cyclone rollercoaster, subtly called attention to the traveling element of this production, suggestive as well of 1950s traveling circuses and the carnival atmosphere of itinerant early modern acting troupes.

Dennis Price, as Sir John Falstaff, waded playfully in the shallow waters of this character, so diminished from the Henry plays. In Merry Wives, Falstaff no longer creates the humor; he is reduced to being the narrator of amusing stories about his mortified self. Price effectively portrayed this Falstaff, and he thoughtfully located the humanity of the character in his being old and past his game. If Price sometimes lacked the vitality to stand out amid the madcap antics of his colleagues, the pleasing result was that the energy of performance resided not simply with him, but was shared among the ensemble.

Monmouth veteran Dustin Tucker, as Master Ford, was arresting in his transformation from bland to jealous husband, exploding into a zany Master Brook, his body writhing in angry frustration. Tucker's balletic performance, high jinx, and elasticity of expression sustained the brisk comic tempo. As a birdlike Mistress Quickly, Maria Kelly enriched the role with witty physically, poignant longing for Fenton, and nimble emotional transformations. And the merry wives, Jeri Pitcher as Mistress Ford and Kathleen Nation as Mistress Page, delivered articulate and lively performances, consistently gaining the upper hand over the men while maintaining a wide-eyed innocence reminiscent of their '50s foremothers.

Skillful doubling of characters completed the cast. Gus Schullenburg, as both the absurd French Dr. Caius and the easy-going Jersey hoodlum Bardolph, subtly employed accent and body language to effect the illusion of two entirely different actors. Kevin Hoffman played an Irish Father Hugh and the beau Fenton, and John Bromels performed a geeky Shallow and the bluff Host.

The question of Falstaff's position at the end--whether triumphant or gulled--was submerged in a cheerful reconciliation embracing all elements of Windsor, all the speakers of different languages and dialects. Ruefully shrugging off his humiliation, Falstaff joined the others in the harmonious and forgiving conclusion of the communal dinner. Having delightfully evoked the happy days of '50s sitcoms, where the women triumphed and the men didn't know it, the Monmouth troupe delivered Shakespeare's play straight into the hands of the next generation.

JILL RUBINSON, University of Maine at Augusta LAUREL HANSON, Messalonskee High School
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Author:Robinson, Jill; Hanson, Laurel
Publication:Shakespeare Bulletin
Article Type:Theater Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2005
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