The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Susan Gayle Todd and produced by the Austin Scottish Rite Theater and The Weird Sisters Women’s Theater Collective. At the Austin Scottish Rite Theater, August 3, 2016
Reviewed by Michael Saenger
Whatever you might think is Shakespeare’s greatest play, Falstaff is almost certainly his greatest character. Shakespeare was writing in a culture that was more moralistic than ours, and his fat knight doesn’t avoid moral clichés so much as he demolishes them. Legend has it that Queen Elizabeth saw Falstaff in one of Shakespeare’s history plays, and, like many generations of theatergoers who would follow, was captivated by the corpulent, irreverent knight. She asked to see Falstaff in love, and Shakespeare dutifully wrote a play to honor that request, The Merry Wives of Windsor. So let’s be clear on this: our great English author was asked by his queen to write a play and he did. What’s more, the play is a joyful romp, dramatizing a set of women who school the men in their lives, rewarding them for good behavior and punishing them for disrespect. It’s pretty hard to shake the impression that Shakespeare sincerely honored Elizabeth I, and wrote her a play that honored women in general.
Flash forward four hundred years (plus). Though the play was feminist for its time, it needs some alteration. The plot hinges around Mistresses Ford and Page, two hausfrauen of Windsor, representing something like the suburbia of the day. Mistress Page has a good husband, who trusts her and calmly looks forward to seeing her at the end of each day. Mistress Ford, on the other hand, has a bad, jealous husband. For him, his wife constitutes a prize to be defended from all appetites, especially her own. Master Ford tries throughout the play to test his wife’s loyalty, and his ploys to do so invariably backfire to expose himself as a self-wounding bundle of inadequacy, so certain that his wife is unfaithful that he seems to actually fantasize about her infidelity. Falstaff dutifully arrives to mount seductions of both virtuous wives—both!—and Mistress Ford sees an opportunity to punish her problematic husband, and teach him to be properly obedient. In a subplot, the Pages’ daughter defies both parents to match herself with the man she wants.
That may have all been feminist for its time, but modern viewers can’t help but notice how limited the stakes are. In this play, women’s highest goal is to be chaste to their men, and to have some choice in suitors. If you stage the play as it’s written, it’s about as empowering as the Spice Girls.
Which is why this production was so delightful. To start with, all the roles are cross-cast. Two men, Robert Deike and Jon Watson, played the merry wives of the title—in drag, Cage aux Folles style, with aplomb and comic relish. Terry Galloway takes on the role of the fat knight, eagerly filling this mythical part with theatrical magic. Galloway is famous in these parts for an unshakable faith in the power of theater, and that’s what you need for Falstaff. Perhaps the best guilty pleasure of this play is Kristin Fern Johnson as the tortured Master Ford. It’s a silly part, more like what the English call “panto” than the Shakespeare we’re used to seeing. Johnson twists her face and arches her brow to show us exactly what happens when jealousy pulls a man from a position of tyranny to one of ridiculous humiliation. The reversal of gender serves to offer some great roles to female actors, but it also updates a play in queer and feminist terms. When two (rather deep-voiced) men plot to be sexually autonomous wives, the play is reinvested with the progressiveness it was originally intended to have. Where do they hide the letters they receive from the naughty Falstaff? Of course they hide them between their dresses and their breasts. In the original play, Anne Page has three suitors, and one of the two is the comically pretentious French Dr. Caius. Here he was played by Kathy Blackbird. Rather than trying to be seen as a man, Blackbird fairly clearly was playing a woman who plays a man, thus making the joke less a mockery of ze Frensh and more clearly a mockery of male entitlement. Patriarchy in general is made to look as foolish as the prideful lust of Falstaff and the shamed paranoia of Ford.
In the stately space of the Austin Scottish Rite Theater, the actors perform in front of three beautiful, if generic, backings, depicting indoor and outdoor space with quickly ascending and descending screens. The space still feels a bit like a high school auditorium, though the refurbished lit ceiling marks out some room for wonderment. The musical accompaniment was a Renaissance period ensemble, which is perhaps worth some reflection. The play is camped up, to put it mildly, so it seems like a bit more musical and set range would be in order—perhaps a little Diana Ross on Elizabethan instruments? The actors weren’t exactly performing the period piece that the staging implied.
If you look at this play in the context of Shakespeare’s oeuvre, it is a return to the levity of The Comedy of Errors. But in the bigger picture, it looks more like a gender play that explains a lot of the rest of his work. With it, we are reminded that it really was not such an accident, after all, that the best poetry humans have known was written under the reign, and to some extent under the specific request, of a woman who ruled over a male world. For one more weekend, Austin gets an opportunity to see what happens when queens rule. Don’t miss it.