Merry Wives of Windsor
At Bard on the Beach until Sept. 21
Tickets: 604-739-0559, bardonthebeach.org
Willie, meet Tammy, Loretta and Patsy. That would be William Shakespeare, Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn and Patsy Cline in Johnna Wright's country-western take on The Merry Wives of Windsor. "Stand By Your Man" and "Sometimes It's Hard To Be A Woman" are just a few of the 1960s country tunes included in this yee-haw production.
"What a hoot," said a fellow near me after the uproarious standing ovation whilst the entire ensemble enthusiastically line-danced across the Douglas Campbell Studio Stage. This will likely be the best revenue-producing play of Bard on the Beach's 23rd season.
But that doesn't make it Shakespeare's best.
Director Wright says in her production notes that Merry Wives is "a love letter to the Elizabethan middle class," written (mostly in prose) on Shakespeare's home turf about characters recognizable in his home town of Windsor, England. Wright moves the play from Elizabethan Windsor to 1968 Windsor, Ont.-although it feels more like Canadian cattle country with the cowboy boots, fringed cowgirl getups (by Drew Facey) and a frontier-looking bar (designed by Pam Johnson) with Benjamin Elliott's upstage country/western band. How country is it? Well, if a very funny Todd Thomson (as host of the Garter Inn) were to drag his drawl out any longer, we'd have exited Vanier Park 15 minutes later.
As it is, two-and-a-half hours is just too long for such flimsy fare. Sir John Falstaff (Ashley Wright) sets out to seduce both married gals Mistress Ford (Amber Lewis) and Mistress Page (Katey Wright) hoping to bilk them of their husbands' money. Mr. Page (Neil Maffin) hardly seems to break his stride on the way to the curling rink when he hears about the plot, but Mr. Ford (Scott Bellis) is beside himself with jealousy. In the subplot, Evans and Dr. Cauis, a couple of suitors for the Page's daughter Anne (Kayla Deorksen) have a non-duel whilst young Fenton (Aslam Husain) woos Anne right under their very eyes.
Wright sends it all up, up and away, and if the play were an hour shorter, it might have worked for me. Patti Allan, as Mistress Quickly, hams it up royally and Allan does ham exceedingly well. David Marr plays Dr. Caius as a Frenchman with an accent so thick you can cut it with the dueling sword he wields. Anousha Alamian, as Evans, is a yoga-practising East Indian or Pakistani. Allan Morgan, as Shallow, wears a Shriner's fez and rides a scooter.
So much stuff.
But so much talent to work with. These are some of the country's finest. Wright, as rotund and lascivious Falstaff, keeps his character just this side of over the top even when wearing a muumuu and picture hat. Bellis, not really known for comedy, is very funny as the outraged spouse and even funnier when his character takes on the disguise of beat poet, beret-wearing Mr. Brook. Bellis's dive into the laundry basket is worthy of Cirque du Soleil.
Wright (Katey) and Lewis are well paired in their crinolined dirndls and bouffant air dos as the perpetually plotting housewives. The musical cues-like "Morning Has Broken" when a badly hung-over Mr. Ford wakes up in the bar-are funny and well timed. And, of course, the language is grand. We should all start saying, "Let the sky rain potatoes" as does Falstaff when things are looking good.
This Merry Wives has so much life breathed into it, it explodes like an over-inflated balloon all over the place. The best part is seeing these hard-working actors-like Morgan and Allan-having so much goshdarn fun. They do a dance so sweet, they almost melt.