— Ashley Wright. Photo: David Cooper
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
I have to begin by saying that Merry Wives of Windsor is probably my least favourite play in the canon. If it didn’t have Shakespeare’s name attached to it, I doubt that Merry Wives would ever be produced. The Falstaff who is such a brilliant character in the Henry plays is reduced to a buffoon and surrounded by unfunny men and unmemorable women.
Given the material she has to work with, director Johnna Wright’s decision to set the play in a Windsor, Ontario country and western bar in 1968 is fairly inspired. What she, her cast and designers do with this concept, though, just reinforces my sense that this is not a play worth salvaging. All you can really do is send it up. Wright’s Bard on the Beach production is to Shakespeare’s play as the Arts Club’s Xanadu is to Olivia Newton-John’s movie. The results aren’t quite so spectacular, although audience reaction seems almost as enthusiastic.
Shakespeare’s largely incomprehensible plot is barely a concern here. The only scenes that really register are the attempts by the wives, Mistress Page (Katey Wright) and Mistress Ford (Amber Lewis), to fool fat, horny Falstaff (Ashley Wright), who wants to bed them behind their husbands’ backs. This leads to far and away the best moments of the evening, when jealous, suspicious husband Ford, played with his usual brilliance by Scott Bellis, disguises himself as a beatnik and serenades Falstaff with some wonderful talking blues.
Also very funny is David Marr, reprising his role as a Clouseau-like French doctor from the 2004 Bard production. Beyond those performances, and that of a drawling Todd Thomson as the bartender, everyone works way too hard for laughs -- the younger members of the ensemble especially, but even veterans Allan Morgan as Shallow (a tricycle-riding Shriner) and Patti Allan as Mistress Quickly.
Most of the production’s pleasures come from its musical numbers and Benjamin Elliot’s clever musical direction. Mistress Page opens the show with “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” Ford croons “Stand By Your Man,” and Falstaff goes into totally unexpected Allman Brothers mode with “Ramblin’ Man,” followed by a crowd-pleasin’ “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked On Me,” which goes on way too long. Both those songs post-date 1968, but let’s not get too pedantic here.
Ashley Wright handles the Falstaff role with aplomb, but with his perfect RP accent and rounded Stratford-upon-Avon vowels, he sometimes appears to have rambled in from a different play than the Canadian characters who surround him.
Drew Facey’s costumes are ridiculous in the extreme: bright, broad plaids, men’s pant legs way too short. These styles have nothing to do with 1968 but everything to do with the fact that the characters are essentially clowns, and the production needs to make them funny however it can.
One of the big laughs of the evening comes when the bartender sets down a lava lamp. For Vancouver audiences nostalgia seems its own reward, and this Merry Wives provides it a-plenty.