Admirable Pleasures and Honest Knaveries: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Shakespeare Theatre Company
Poor Falstaff, time traveling ne’er-do-well set adrift in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor – he can’t get a break! His coffers are barren, his schemes keep backfiring, two very smart women (of all creatures) succeed in making him their personal plaything, he gets tossed in the Thames with dirty linens… even old Harold Bloom, in a blistering critique of an already maligned script, dismisses him as “a nameless imposter masquerading as the great Sir John Falstaff!” So it’s a credit to the sparkling, stylish production of The Merry Wives of Windsor, currently running at Shakespeare Theatre Company, not to mention actor David Schramm’s earthy and blustery, yet somehow lovable characterization, that Falstaff elicits such genuine sympathy "in the flesh." (Of which he has plenty to fill the stage.)
Yet The Merry Wives is about much more than Falstaff alone. The sole example of Shakespeare’s plays to be set within his own contemporary time period, the script navigates issues common to both Elizabethan England and contemporary America, including unconventional gender roles and sexual identities, the frustrations borne of socio-economic mobility, and the collapse of old orders, all infused with heapings of the Bard’s trademark witty wordplay. Appropriately, British director Stephen Rayne has dialed up the inherent Britishness of the piece, updating the setting to 1919, a time when soldiers are returning from the Great War to find old aristocracies giving way to a new modern world, where women march with suffrage banners and damsels with dowries can be courted by men on motorbikes. Although the piercing royal eyes of George V (who in fact restored the name of the House of Windsor from the slightly less-marketable House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) are a recurring theme in Daniel Conway’s stunning and flexible set pieces, the jazz age, liberation, and love are indeed, just around the corner. Warning: devoted Downton Abbey fans may have to be physically removed from the Harman Theatre after the curtain drops!
The cast, featuring STC stalwarts and upstarts alike, is uniformly excellent, and so exquisitely in tune with the music of Shakespeare's prose, that it feels unfair to highlight specific performances. That said, apart from Schramm’s masterly Falstaff, I particularly enjoyed Veanne Cox’s fluid physicality and effortless commitment in the role of Mistress Page; we often speak of an actor’s “instrument” in the theater world, and hers is a Stradivarius of specificity, even when not the focus of a scene. (Her bit role on Seinfeld is an internet find!) Watching Cox scheme away with the excellent Caralyn Kozlowski (as Mistress Ford) is an absolute delight; the chemistry and interaction between the two can only be the result of actors truly having fun on stage. In a performance calibrated for maximum cringe, Michael Mastro nails the neurotic, pathetic willfulness of Ford, a genuinely difficult role. Quite unbeknownst to him, local gem Floyd King has been starring inside my head as Classics Professor Julian Morrow in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (which I just finished and highly recommend to both you and him should he ever read this), and King’s singular brand of nutty eccentricity lends itself aptly to the Welsh parson Hugh Evans. Smaller roles are marvelously fleshed out as well, including James Konicek, using what has to be one of the most infamously booming voices in DC theater to grand effect, and Jimmy Kieffer, taking confident control of the stage in his handful of scenes. French fop Tom Story’s sight gag, involving his fondness for a certain perfumed linen, is the funniest moment all night.
I must admit that my artist’s budget has mainly restricted me to theatrical experiences on the lower end of the budget scale in DC – I surmise that this probably is not an issue for the mostly older patrons who surrounded me – but the chance to watch such a sleek, well-honed “production” like this has me, at least for a moment, reconsidering my commitment to blackbox aesthetics. Not that the acting or “message” of bare-bones theater is any less vital, but it’s just so darn impressive to see what can be done with enormous budgets: sleek, moving set pieces creating the illusion of streets and taverns, sitting rooms with swooping balconies, dank and misty forests, the bright colors of period advertisements (was Hendrick’s Gin an actual sponsor?), mysterious candlelit ambiance, whipsmart (and highly enviable) period costumes, delectable original music, and most of all, the magic that comes only from allowing yourself to wander into a shimmering world of theatrical fantasy. (If money is an issue, STC’s Young Prose program is worth investigating – every Tuesday at 10am, $15 tickets are released to patrons 35 and under. So there goes the excuse that theater is too expensive, all you moviegoing millenials!) "The world is mine oyster," as the Bard famously offered in this very play; thakfully, those of us who live in this area don't have to travel far to find a place where world-class classical theater thrives. Make every effort to crack open this merry magic, DC!
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