The Merry Wives of Windsor; directed by Paul Mason Barnes for the Utah Shakespeare Festival, Cedar City, Utah, 6 August 2018.
Reviewed by David W. Hartwig (Weber State University)
I begin this review with a confession: I do not enjoy The Merry Wives of Windsor. And I believe that I am in good company. Nearly every stage production I have seen has attempted to modernize the play through musical numbers, setting, and significant editing. The same can be said of Paul Mason Barnes’s production at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
The production was staged in USF’s Engelstad Theatre – an open-air, quasi-Elizabethan space within a modern concrete and iron-beam structure. Other than a few acoustical “dead zones,” it is a wonderful venue, and lends itself well to the festival atmosphere. Scenic designer Apollo Mark Weaver augmented the space with late-nineteenth century Americana, and Bill Black’s costume design completed the effect. A river scene was painted on the tiring house, replete with a paddle-wheel boat; white framing hung from the balcony space to indicate windows and an arched roof; a wrought-iron bench and planter boxes full of fake flowers adorned the apron. The male characters wore seersucker suits and flat straw hats, and Mistresses Ford and Page entered carrying a clapboard suffragette sign. This latter design element gave me great hope that this was finally a Merry Wives that would confront the play’s deeply problematic misogyny.
A musical prologue was added which set the scene and introduced every character (yes, every character). Musical numbers were also added between nearly every scene, and an actor announced the scene’s location to the audience, even when a sign onstage already established location as in the Garter’s Inn scenes. As with my earlier thought about the suffragette sign, an early musical number promised a different kind of Merry Wives: during the second interlude, Peter Simple (Austin Glen Jacobs) and John Rugby (Landon Tate Boyle) met and waltzed lovingly across the stage together. Sadly, this was nothing more than the plant for the closet joke in 1.4.
As the show continued, the interludes became more meaninglessly tedious. The culmination was a five-minute curtain call with another song and an ill-fated attempt to get the audience to sing along. John Ahlin (Falstaff) took at least three bows, and the show had a running time of well over three hours. What began with great promise of a truly interesting Merry Wives never came to fruition.
That said, there were some very strong performances. Tarah Flanagan and Stephanie Lambourn excelled as the aforementioned Mistresses Ford and Page. Their comic timing was flawless as they executed both the wordplay of Shakespeare’s text and the physical comedy layered on top of it. They had impeccable pace, and seemed to sense when scenes began to drag as other actors chewed the scenery. Their plots against the helpless Falstaff were executed with delightful joy, and they adopted almost Vaudevillian mannerisms to great effect as they gulled their foolish husbands.
George Kent’s Master Ford was also strong. He interacted with the audience in repeating gag every time the word “cuckold” was uttered. As Master Brook, he adopted a comically thick Scottish brogue and eye patch. But in a production that foregrounded women’s rights and at least nodded toward the LGBTQ+ community, Ford was allowed to be a comic impresario. His darkly misogynistic jealousy rang of anachronism in a production with such ethical standards, and the final song seemed to excuse Ford’s possessiveness.
Similarly, John Ahlin’s Falstaff felt like a relic of the “bad old days.” His objectification of Windsor wives was simply not funny. Ahlin sought to recuperate some pathos for the fat knight by showing as well past his physical prime – groaning every time he bent over, bemoaning his undeserved fate, bravado covering human frailty – and by hamming it up with the audience. But in the end, Falstaff was absolved of wrongful deeds, reinforced by his centrality during the curtain call.
This production was clearly Shakespeare for tourists. Everything was explained, overly so, and comfortably unthreatening. However, I would not have recommended it as an introduction to Shakespeare’s works if the goal is to show how a four hundred year old play can be relevant today. It was fun and frivolous, and got plenty of laughs, but it hinted at how much more this play could be without exploring those possibilities.