BWW Review: THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR at Commonwealth Theatre Center
Review by Keith Waits
In her staging of The Merry Wives of Windsor, director Jennifer Pennington taps into the unique reservoir of contextual opportunities of a mid-Twentieth Century setting. By placing the action in the 1950's, she puts a refreshing spin on one of the most featherweight of Shakespeare's comedies.
Sir John Falstaff (Alec Elmore) becomes a leather-jacketed, would-be tough infiltrating a bedroom community intending to woo suburban wives Mistress Ford (Shannon Austin-Goodin) and Mistress Page (Brooklyn Durs). The young suitor to Anne Page (Natalie Koch), Fenton (Abel Sgro), enters in stovepipe jeans and a red jacket that references James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause.
The excellent design work vividly realizes the period, with large backdrop projections that evoke the idealized 50's and against which the actors positioned at the beginning of certain scenes create tidy silhouettes. Lindsay Chamberlin's costumes are a beautifully heightened expression of the Eisenhower Era, with full skirts for the middle-class wives and form-fitting Capri pants for Bardolph (Stephanie Cox) befitting her lower social status, and the women's vintage hairdos, designed by Laura Ellis and Carrie Cook Ketterman, are sculptural creations worthy of a museum.
Pennington, who was assisted by Meg Caudill, also is generous with the use of music, mostly vintage rock and roll, and even pull it directly into the action with a couple of musical numbers, most notably Ms. Caudill 's staging Falstaff's final humiliation with Ray Charles' "Hit The Road Jack". It's an inspired moment of estimable silliness.
Alec Elmore's younger, clean-shaven Falstaff may not entirely satisfy tradition, but his comic assurance both physically and with the dialogue is impressive. His fearless attack on the role gives a great character his due.
Ruiaridh Kerr is a supple Master Ford, the husband who believes he drives the plot to capture Falstaff in flagrante delicto. The truth, of course, is that the wives are way ahead on that score, and Brooklyn Durs and Shannon Austin-Goodin as Mistresses Page and Ford, respectively, give the story a center built on wit, intelligence, and the capability to suffer fools with patience (their husbands) or wicked manipulation (Falstaff).
Other strong work comes from Natalie Koch as Anne Page, an ingénue with some bite, Meaghan Northup as Host of the Garter Inn, and Bella Detwiler as Mistress Quickly, depicted as a nurse with two large curls to offset her bright red kewpie doll lipstick (the make-up is also very good).
The performances are pitched at a broad level, and mostly delivered with discipline, but the risk of overplaying hovers over the production, with a few of the cast, such as Field Oldham as Sir Hugh Evans, succumbing to scenery chewing with unrestrained relish. The truth is, however much fun the raucous slapstick may be, the most satisfying acting comes in two scenes played in a lower key by Mr. Elmore and Mr. Kerr.
The 1950's have for so long been an exemplar for the American Dream, and Pennington uses the play to illuminate the insecurity underlying the nuclear family and the well-scrubbed, highly manufactured innocence at the heart of the United States in the 20th century. Complaints about relocating Shakespeare in time and place are common, but this Merry Wives of Windsor is one of the smarter examples of the approach.
2018 Young American Shakespeare Festival
The Merry Wives of Windsor
May 10, 12, 15 @ 7:30, May 19 @ 2:00, May 20 @ 8:00
May 12 @ 2:00, May 13, 16, 18 @ 7:30, May 20 @ 12:30
Measure for Measure
May 11, 17, 19 @ 7:30, May 13 @ 2:00, May 20 @ 4:00
Nancy Sexton Stage
Commonwealth Theatre Center
1123 Payne Street
Louisville, KY 40204