(Mike Fischer’s article appeared in the Journal Sentinal, 6/30.)
Winona, Minn. — Shakespeare's "The Merry Wives of Windsor" doesn't get any respect. Critics grumble that the Falstaff who gets snookered by the wives he hopes to bed is a pale copy of the larger-than-life Falstaff of the Henry plays. The play's farcical elements are disparaged as predictable. The writing — in a script with the most prose of any Shakespeare play — is deemed second rate.
Whatever. After watching the ingenious and moving confection on stage during the opening weekend of Winona's Great River Shakespeare Festival — with Milwaukee Repertory Theater regular Jonathan Gillard Daly playing the fat man — I'm prepared to tell all the naysayers to stuff it.
Light as this play is on the page, it can light up a stage, particularly when the dynamic duo of Paul Mason Barnes (director) and Jack Forbes Wilson (music director) work their mojo together. I enjoyed their fun and inventive Great River productions of "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" in 2012 and "Twelfth Night" last summer; their "Merry Wives" makes it a hat trick.
Barnes has set the play around 1900, and when the cast first came on stage together, introducing their characters and then launching into "Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two)" I had a moment of déjà vu involving the opening moments of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's recent production of "Ragtime," in which a similarly costumed cast presented this same seemingly sleepy world, about to change forever.
In "Merry Wives," those changes involve how we think about love, with Daly's Falstaff unwittingly serving as one of the catalysts. Old and fat as he is, Falstaff fancies himself a ladies' man, hoping for trysts with married women Alice Ford (Tarah Flanagan) and Margaret Page (Sigrid Sutter). They lead him on only to take him down — while also teaching Frank, Alice's jealous husband, a few valuable lessons about relationships.
The particulars of how this gets engineered — Falstaff hiding in a huge hamper of dirty laundry, before impersonating an old woman and then a great, horned stag — always make audiences laugh; a primping and fatuous Daly ensures this happens here.
But long before Falstaff gets his final comeuppance, Daly also gives us the slightest hint of melancholy, reflecting a man who might be wondering whether there's more — or should be — than yet another variation on this tired theme.