Should Shakespeare purists avoid this Merry Wives of Windsor? If they’re averse to an evening of laughter and if they can’t stand seeing every last one in the cast sculpt character with the finest of detail, they should stay away. Lanky Benjamin Elliott, as Slender, grins goofily and looks like he’s put together with rubber bands. As Simple, Dawn Petten is dowdy, bucktoothed and walks with a list to starboard. Words fail to describe Jennifer Lines, portraying the bawd Mistress Quickly. Rigged out in a hugely fake red wig and wriggling around on red high heels, she looks like an oversexed praying mantis high on speed. And then there’s Scott Bellis, as Mistress Ford’s jealous husband. Bellis can be deadly serious, but he can also bring the house down — as he does in this production — with a sotto voce, “Arrggh.”
Everyone picks up a musical instrument at some point. And some of them sing — really, really well. Ashley Wright (Sir John Falstaff) had the opening night audience in stitches when he broke into “Ramblin’ Man” and later, even funnier, “Baby, Baby, Don’t Get Hooked On Me.” Don’t remember these songs in The Merry Wives of Windsor? Well, you’ve never seen a Merry Wives like this unless you saw it in 2012 on the Douglas Campbell Stage. It’s all grown up and appearing on the mainstage this year.
Once again, director Johnna Wright sets the play in Windsor, Ont. not Windsor, Berkshire, England and the action has shifted, once again, from Elizabethan England to the ’60s: crinolines, peddle pushers, beehive hairdos, a Timothy Leary lookalike (finger snapping Bellis again), rockin’ band (under the direction of Benjamin Elliott) and even a baggie of weed.
So, yes, it’s way, way over the top, but it’s a ridiculous script to begin with, so why not send it into the stratosphere?
Sir John Falstaff, short of cash, decides to woo the purse-string holding wives of Ford (Bellis) and Page (Tom Pickett), hoping to get some between-the-sheets action and to weasel some money out of them. But Mistress Ford (Amber Lewis) and her BFF Mistress Page (Katey Wright) catch on and set traps for Falstaff. (Rumour has it that this play was written by Shakespeare upon the request of Elizabeth I who, having seen Falstaff in earlier plays, wished to see him “in love.” Whether he’s in love in the Merry Wives is questionable, but he’s certainly in lust enough to make a complete fool of himself.)
The secondary plot involves Page’s beautiful daughter Anne (Hailey Gillis) and her various unsuitable suitors, including the ludicrous Slender (Elliott), Doctor Caius (Andrew Chown), Pastor Evans (Andrew McNee) and one completely suitable suitor, young Fenton (Daniel Doheny).
Set designer Pam Johnson provides a pub — The Garter Inn — where the host (Anton Lipovetsky) presides. A white picket fence moves in and out to provide the backyard setting for the Mistresses Ford and Page’s scheming. Drew Facey has fun with the costumes, including golf and curling getups. It’s Canadian, eh?
Songs include “These Boots Are Made For Walking,” and poor Falstaff really does get walked all over as well as thrown in a laundry basket and beaten (offstage) with a golf club.
Shakespeare has written many feisty, conniving women, but Mistress Ford and Mistress Page take scheming to a whole other level; the script fits right into early ’60s feminism. This Bard production is a foot-stomping hoot and about as far from traditional as you can go. If you think you hate Shakespeare, check this one out. Take your summer visitors. I tried not to laugh too much, too loud or too long; I failed miserably.
For more reviews, go to joledingham.ca.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is at Bard on the Beach until Sept. 24. For tickets, call 604-739-0559 or go to bardonthebeach.org.