Great Acting While on a Treadmill: The Merry Wives of Windsor

Photo Credit: Stratton McCrady

The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare, Actors’ Shakespeare Project, Davis Square Theatre, 12/7/11-1/1/12, http://www.actorsshakespeareproject.org/events/merry-wives-windsor-0.

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

(Somerville, MA) It’s one thing for a young theater troupe to be ambitious, but it’s something else to watch the troupe succeed in its ambition.

In its early history, the Actors’ Shakespeare Project has decided to skip the low-hanging fruit of the Bard’s body of work and reach for some of his more obscure works.  (Hands up for anyone who knows a single line from Troilus and Cressida, which the troupe performs in the spring.)

The task is a tall one.  While Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet have somewhat tight plots and memorable lines, Shakespeare also threw out the occasional play with huge plot-holes and pacing problems.  A production must find a way to compensate for the script’s shortcomings; ignoring them can kill a show.

The Merry Wives of Windsor would be sent for rewrite in Hollywood (unless it was a Michael Bay film).  It has tacked-on plotlines and some flimsy characters; worst of all, it runs out of story and just recycles plot for the final act.  What it does have in abundance is silliness and slapstick opportunities, but a troupe has to be on top of its game to make the script work.

The Actors’ Shakespeare Project nails the play by combining high energy, daring double-casting, near-flawless execution and an obvious mastery of the script.  And they make it look easy, even though they are doing the mental and physical equivalent of sprinting on a treadmill.

The plot, for what it’s worth: Sir John Falstaff (Richard Snee), a fat, self-important knight, finds himself broke and decides to seduce a couple of rich, local wives.  The wives (Marianna Bassham and Esme Allen) decide to egg him on to humiliate him and tease a jealous husband (Michael Forden Walker).  There are also a couple of absurd subplots about a duel between a Welsh priest and a French doctor, as well as schemes to marry off a sweet young thing; this only adds to the chaos.

It’s hard to keep everything straight, but the production raises the bar by doing some crazy double-casting.  For example, doe-eyed Lydia Barnett-Mulligan must pull off both a young love object and a disdainful middle-aged French doctor, while Bill Barclay has the unenviable job of playing both Mr. Wrong and Mr. Right of the male love interests.  While not every double-casting is believable, the production plays off the absurdity, and I would challenge you to identify every switch by the end of the show.

Director Steven Barkhimer seems to understand that Shakespeare never lost the vision that his plays must entertain and occupy “two hours traffic on the stage”.  Barkhimer does an excellent job as traffic cop, ensuring the many entrances and exits go smoothly, while honing his cast diamond-sharp both in their script chops and comic timing.  He wisely elects to bypass believability for entertainment, and the audience benefits.

And I can say all this after watching this on the production’s preview night.  It would be a treat to watch the cast get even better and more comfortable with the absurdity.  For example, while Snee gives a wonderful Dos-Equis-Most-Interesting-Man-in-the-World gravitas to Sir John Falstaff, I hope he will feel more comfortable in future productions to allow Falstaff to be a bit more physically antisocial (ahem) with the ladies.  Every actor is just going to get better, and that is just plain scary.

This production is great now.  Go now and go next week and see it grow.

 

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