by Terrance V. Mc Arthur
‘Tis summer in Fresno, and that means it is time for the Woodward Shakespeare Festival. This year brings a situation comedy, war, and Tennessee Williams. The season of free performances in Woodward Park has begun with The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Gabriela Lawson. The closing performances of this show will be this weekend so be sure to get out there.
Written between 1597 and 1602, legend has it that Queen Elizabeth I wanted to see Falstaff in love, bringing back the character of the tubby knight who was a pal to Prince Hal (who would become King Henry V). Shakespeare’s story is far from his stately histories, stark tragedies, and pastoral comedies; Windsor is of the who-will-be-cuckolded and men-disguised-as-women school; less Grand Ball and more Lucille Ball.
A paunchy and poor Falstaff plans to woo two women for monetary gain, but Mistress Page and Mistress Ford compare notes, discover the lardly lothario’s slimy scheme, and vow revenge. They arrange for meetings between Mistress Ford and Falstaff, but put the round roué into hampers and drag to escape her jealous husband.
There is also the long-suffering Page daughter, who her parents want to marry off to unsuitable suitors. She favors her own highborn hero, but, with disguises and subterfuge, everything ends up the way it should, with no ill feelings.
Gabriela Lawson is a stalwart of the WSF’s stages, having played Lady Macbeth, Olivia in Twelfth Night, Rosalind in As You Like It, Lord Buckingham in Richard III, and the Fool in King Lear. After her directing chores are finished, she will tackle the role of that faded flower Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, the next play in the Shakespeare Festival’s eighth season. Lawson has familiarity with the material, as she directed a reader’s theatre staging of the play for the Festival’s readings at the Woodward Park Regional Library.
The play, considered the only Shakespeare play to be set in an Elizabethan world, has been time-shifted to the post-Victorian, Edwardian era of the early twentieth century, contrasting the knockabout action with the stiffness of the period’s styles and culture. Deborah Bolen’s costumes evoke the time and Chris Campbell’s unit set portrays the difference in classes between the Fords and Falstaff, down to a crooked picture on the wall that begs to be straightened.
The Merry Wives of Merry Wives are standouts in the cast. Jennifer Hurd-Peterson as Mistress Ford exhibits the sureness and comic chops that have made her one of my favorite humans, while Amelia Ryan bustles brightly as Mistress Page. The two have a Lucy/Ethel camaraderie that excuses the horrible things they do to Falstaff.
Aaron Spjute plays the would-be heavy home wrecker with gusto and padding, and a wig and beard that seem borrowed from Rum-Tum-Tugger and Old Deuteronomy in a road company of Cats. Catherine Evangelho as Anne Page and Michael Braa as Fenton provide a romantic core and a veneer of normalcy to all the frenetic activity that surrounds them.
The ubiquitous Hal H. Bolen, II graces the WSF stage again with a befuddled suitor, Dr. Caius, that is part Inspector Clouseau, part Sigmund Freud, and part genial rabbi. The other suitor, Slender, played by Chaim Harrell, swoops in as somewhere between the Artist sometimes known as Prince and Little Richard. Good golly!
The production is broad in style and galloping in pace. Prepare to bundle up against the evening breezes and be ready to be merry, too.
The Merry Wives of Windsor plays at the WSF Stage in the Meadow Theater at Woodward Park (in the northeast corner of the park off of the Friant/Fort Washington entrance.), Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., closing June 30. Pre-shows begin at 7:30. Performances are free, but park admission is $5. Learn more on their website and their KRL event page.
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