‘William Shakespeare’, the name alone has become synonymous with the high brow that it’s easy to forget what a purveyor of base humour and levity the English playwright often was.
Take The Bard on the Beach’s most recent run of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’, there we have a play aimed at tickling the audience’s funny bone from exposition to revelation; completely void of the tragedy genre so often associated with Shakespeare’s more famous works (“Romeo & Juliet”, “Hamlet”, “Macbeth”, “Othello”).
Of Shakespeare’s extensive catalogue of plays and poems The Merry Wives of Windsor is his only story, comedy or otherwise that was written almost entirely in prose. The combination of early modern English with Shakespeare’s penchant of ignoring metrical structure and relentless use of double entendre is perhaps the only real deterrent for the laymen theatre goer (potentially) considering attending the four month long Vancouver summer mainstay; The Bard on the Beach. However, once immersed in the nuanced hypnotism the production provides there is little shortage of digestible knee slapping source material; regardless of the year it was performed in.
June 03 marked the fourth time that The Merry Wives of Windsor (in some capacity), took to the Bard since its inception at Fringe Fest in ‘89. 1994 saw the festival’s initial stab at The Merry Wives of Windsor then again in 2004 the title once again adorned the playbill.
It was not until 2012, the third time the play inhabited Vanier Park did The Bard see director Johnna Wright put to execution her vision of the reimagined take on the 1602 published comedy; The Merry Wives of Windsor. Some 366 years after the play was first published Wright decided to modernize the classic fable, setting the production against a 1968 Windsor Ontario backdrop, rather than the Windsor Castle (Berkshire, England) home enjoyed previously
Having upgraded from The Bard’s Douglas Campbell Theatre in 2012, to the BMO Mainstage this season The Merry Wives of Windsor’s confidence in itself continues to grow. The 2012 production has an impressive trophy box, walking away with four out of the seven Jessie nominations they were recognized for. With bigger digs to stretch out and chew the fat in, Wright does a commendable job of allowing her actors freedom to explore range as individuals. Often a detrimental gamble due to pulling an audience out of the scene, the acting in The Merry Wives of Windsor is remarkably diverse, having several characters pull from stylings originating from different genres or schools of thespianism thinking. And while on rare occasion a stronger performance exposed another’s weaker points, never did any of the actors callously upstage another. More often than not it appeared sheer experience separated the wheat from the kernel (of wheat). Under the direction of Johnna Wright the overall chemistry and performances were admirable and did well to suss out every ounce of levity and innuendo originally penned by the raunchy comedic playwright.
Special recognition to Ben Elliot should be noted for his over-the-top, often slapstick comedic approach to the character of Slender, consistently rousing audiences and stealing scenes with a wealth of tools. Whether by vocal cadence, facial mugging, or exaggerated gesticulation near every scene the studio 58 graduate appeared in won the audience over and strengthened the argument for an additional Jessie award for his role in The Merry Wives of Windsor.
When you combine Elliot’s acting chops with the fact that he also doubled as the production’s musical director, than you realize that among the wealth of talent on display at The Bard, Elliot is a cut above.
Other notable talent included the pipes on Mistress Meg Page, played by Katey Wright who despite egregiously flubbing the delivery of two lines during the 2 hour and 20 minute (excluding intermission) performance, made up for it with her hair raising vocal delivery of Nancy Sinatra’s hit “These Boots Are Made for Walking”.
Setting the standard for the night was Ashley Wright’s take on the story’s lead Sir John Falstaff. Due to matriarch’s love of the fat knight Falstaff it was rumoured that The Merry Wives of Windsor was indeed a gift upon request to Queen Elizabeth I, from Shakespeare. It was after Henry IV parts 1 and 2 that the Queen’s alleged request for Shakespeare to bring the loveable oaf back to life with another script. The uncanny request inspired the playwright to oblige her majesty, as well as make Falstaff’s return the only original play penned by the legend that took place in England, as opposed to a foreign or fictional country. Ashley Wright’s admirable performance would have made both Shakespeare and Queen Elizabeth team with pride as he was captivatingly on point, as if crafting his lines and delivery for years before unsheathing them to the packed audience under the mainstage tent.
Pam Johnson’s set decoration was near flawless, though easier to attain than would be had the production stayed in its original timeline of the 1500’s. Johnson’s set decoration becomes that much more impressive when one considers that the very BMO Mainstage providing an ability to suspend disbelief (for The Merry Wives of Windsor) also allows one to track a Bayliner sputtering along the Sunset Beach coastline with a simple aversion of the eyes from the stage. Further kudos to the practical nature of Johnson’s set decoration considering the Mainstage is also utilized on alternating days as a set that would see the feuding Montague and Capulet families find reconciliation in streets of Verona, Italy; via the untimely deaths of two young star-crossed lovers.
Save for the ridiculous attempt at whatever was done to make Ashley Wright appear 100 pounds heavier than he is in reality, Drew Facey’s costume design embodied the fun, uplifting and campy aesthetic Johnna Wright sought after in her vision of the reimagined Merry Wives of Windsor.
Lastly, the music direction of the aforementioned Ben Elliot indeed tied the entire performance together, having provided a consistency to a successfully inconsistent motley crew of characters. Selections including Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” and Mac Davis’ “Baby, Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me” provide the country music backdrop that we’re to assume Windsor, Ontario Canada embodied in the late 60’s. Willie Nelson’s “Crazy” paved the way for what turned out to be the show’s theme song of sorts; in multiple renditions of “Ramblin’ Man”. Throughout the night the Dickey Betts composed smash Allman Brother’s hit (“Ramblin’ Man”) inspired by, but noticeably different than the haunting Hank Williams (Sr) classic by the same name. The multiple variations to “Ramblin’ Man” provided a comfortable bed of contagiously enjoyable music on a very well received night with The Merry The Merry Wives of Windsor.
Note: Mark Lanegan (Screaming Trees, Queens of the Stone Age, Madseason, Kurt Cobain) did a version with Isobel Campbell (Belle & Sebastian) of Hank Williams’ “Ramblin Man” on the 2006 duet album Ballad of the Broken Seas, that is both beautiful and bone chilling.