Friday, May 13, 2016

Wisdom Tooth's "Merry Wives of Windsor": Adding style to the questionable substance of a weak Shakespeare comedy

Adam Crowe as Falstaff: Spruced up and ready to seduce.
In the "Henry IV" history plays (parts one and two), William Shakespeare created a larger-than-life challenge to the progress of a kingly soul in the form of Sir John Falstaff, charismatic companion of the wayward Prince Hal.

In "The Merry Wives of Windsor," where the focus is much narrower than the fate of a nation under monarchy in peril, the corpulent Falstaff is much reduced (pun unavoidable), with only a few flights of rascally eloquence to spout, just a little cleverness, and next to no control over his circumstances.

Wisdom Tooth Theatre Project's production of the comedy, which opens Friday at IndyFringe Theatre, properly emphasizes the dissolute knight as a victim of comical tricks engineered by the title characters. Though in Adam Crowe's full-bore portrayal he speaks in the vigorous, robust tones of his aristocratic heritage, Falstaff has almost nothing to show for the raffishly influential stature he claims in the "Henry IV" plays. (I saw the performance in a media preview Wednesday evening.)

While more than one commentator has deplored the playwright's diminishment in "Merry Wives" of one of his most vivid characters, a wise perspective comes from Anne Barton (in her preface to the play in "The Riverside Shakespeare"). Basically, she makes the case that plot and genre traditionally were more important to playwrights and their audiences than character, which Shakespeare in his greatest plays elevates to a level we have become accustomed to ever since. Here, however, he is true to the conventions he inherited, and Falstaff is merely instrumental.

In both the updating to the early 1950s and the frothy spirit of this production, Wisdom Tooth recognizes that a contemporary audience might well take in "Merry Wives" as a classic TV sit-com, with the elementary motivations and manic complications of (as Wisdom Tooth publicity has it) the "I Love Lucy" show. Sara White's set, bright and slightly cartoonish under Christian McKinney's lighting, could have been imported from television's cozy golden age. I almost expected to hear the dreaded laugh track.

In such a setting, Falstaff plays his role as an inept suitor on a level just as ridiculous as the French doctor Caius or the Welsh pastor/schoolmaster Hugh Evans — individualized only insofar as plot and genre require.

The kind of fun that Shakespeare has with Evans' and Caius' unidiomatic English signals immediately their unsuitability for the hand of the nubile Anne Page, despite the preference of her parents for one or some other. Similarly, Falstaff, "well nigh worn to pieces with age" as Mistress Page describes him, is out of his league as a plausible lover for her or her fellow middle-class wife, Mistress Ford, to whom he has sent identically worded propositions. Never deaf to puns, Shakespeare hints how impotent the knight's pretensions are in his very name.

Moreover, both ladies are almost priggish in their fidelity to their husbands. Bill Simmons' direction is to be commended for highlighting the friskiness of the wives over their moral uprightness. The text underlines their inviolability to adulterous overtures, but the show is a lot more fun if their merry pranks are emphasized, as they are here in the spirited performances of Claire Wilcher as Mistress Page and Amy Hayes as Mistress Ford.

The ladies' plotting is energetic and their rapport was absolutely delectable in Wednesday's show. I felt somewhat in the company of Lucy and Ethel, however vast the difference in language. Even though Falstaff's comeuppance seems crueler than necessary, we are invited to share the wives' delight in it. (In a heightened yet similar manner, Verdi's great opera "Falstaff" also redeems the knight's double humiliation.)

Mistress Ford and Mistress Page compare Falstaff's suggestive missives.
Their husbands were starkly counterpointed — Josh Ramsey's insouciant Page set against the insanely jealous Ford of Rob Johansen. And as the adopter of a ridiculous disguise as Master Brook, Johansen's  hyperbolic style was well suited to Shakespeare's fondness for barely plausible disguises.

Carrie Schlatter is the resourceful general factotum Mistress Quickly, incorporating the Host of the Garter Inn in her role. She was a seductive as well as an inveterately wily Quickly, stuffing bills into her bodice as eagerly as the show's motley schemers could convey them. Her come-hither manner served to highlight the risible cluelessness of Falstaff in his unavailing lust.

She's so much her own person that it's hard to believe Quickly serves anybody, though she's supposed to be the servant of Dr. Caius, who was played with peppery energy by a croquet-mallet-wielding Gari Williams. Caius' antagonist Evans (at least until they reach a truce that allows them, like just about everyone, to target Falstaff) was done to a turn as a sputtering, pedantic ninny by Michael Hosp.

The bashful suitor Slender was taken up expressively by Kelsey VanVoorst, urged on by the youngster's aging cousin Shallow (Zack Joyce). Ben Schuetz sported an apt degree of oafishness as the successful suitor Fenton; even heroes in this kind of comedy have to seem a little bit ridiculous, as did Chelsea Anderson as the ingenue Anne, happy to project subliminal allure through her hula-hoop habit. Servants and hangers-on did their essential bits in performances by Adam Tran (Pistol) and Frankie Bolda (Rugby), with several cast members sharing the role of the dimwit Simple.

At three well-considered moments, the cast assembles to provide a live supplement to the recorded Rosemary Clooney anthology played when the stage is empty. The ensemble delightfully sings and dances "Hernando's Hideaway," "Whatever Lola Wants," and "On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe."

The course of true love never did run smooth, the Bard says elsewhere, but false love trips over obstacles as well, in this case including burial in a laundry basket and swift disposal into the Thames.

The promise of "Hernando's Hideaway," that "if we go to the spot that I am thinking of, you will be free to gaze at me, and talk of love" is often destined to be broken in life and art alike. But it's more fun in art, as this production boisterously demonstrates.

[Photos by Ronn Johnstone]