Friday, August 8, 2008

The Merry Wives of Windsor by the Weird Sisters Collective

Turnabout is fair play might be the theme for The Merry Wives of Windsor. Penurious, lascivious Sir John Falstaff is out for “cony catching” throughout the play but he just can’t learn his lesson. Falstaff (Courtney Brown) aims to trick and seduce the merry wives of the title: Mistress Margaret Page (Leslie Guerrero, left) and Mistress Alice Ford (Christa French, right).

Highly amused by his presumptions, the good ladies entice the lecher to assignations three times, and each time they set him up. Hiding in a clothes basket, Falstaff is carried offstage to be dumped into the muck; cowering before discovery by a maddened husband, he disguises himself and flees as a witchy old crone; and finally, in an apparently enchanted glade, Sir Jack is pinched and pursued by townspeople disguised as fairies.

In fact, you could imagine Turnabout is fair play would be a pretty good heraldic device for the Weird Sisters Women’s Theatre Collective. This is the fourth full-length presentation by a group of women whose manifesto celebrates “the company of powerful, adventurous, wise women, with whom we foster strong, deep relationships.” They use the collective to express themselves, free of gender oppression.

As in their earlier presentations, the Sisters assemble an all-female cast. After all, Shakespeare’s company was all male, wasn’t it? This casting strategy works perfectly well in theatrical space, where the audience is happily complicit in the willing suspension of disbelief.

This is not one of Shakespeare’s better comedies, but theatrical legend excuses that in part by asserting that he wrote it in a rush at the request of Queen Elizabeth I, who wanted to see the hugely comic Falstaff in a romantic comedy.

Falstaff here has none of the canny skills of his pickled, cajoling, irate persona in the Henry IV plays. Out in Windsor, he is a clown and slave to all his appetites, fit to be gull’d and mocked. Sir Jack is a bigger, bolder, caricature version of the merry wives’ own husbands (and by implication, a stand-in for all that’s gross about the male gender).

No wonder the cast takes such enthusiastic delight in the bawdy allusions to cocks, erections, horns and cuckoos.

Director Susan Todd sets the play in the fictional town of Windsor, Texas in the mid-1950’s. She and the collective must have had fun assembling the slide show of ads and snapshots from that time, which amuses us 21st century folk with the gender stereotypes from back then. Before the action begins, we hear Elvis, Patsy Cline, and contemporary recordings of ads and music from a radio station in Midland.

The costumes for female characters are a colorful, corny gala of middle class fashion of the time (love those Capri pants, Anne Page!).

Shakespeare’s language in broad Texas accents? It works! That makes it all the funnier. As the aged Justice Shallow, Chris Humphrey is a cantankerous Texas justice of the peace to the life. Loquacious and brassy in the person of Mistress Quickly, Hollie Baker is part Dolly Parton, part Goldie Hawn.

Courtney Brown is a hoot as Jack Falstaff, visiting star of a broken down rock band. Wrapped in Elvis pompadour and sideburns, she delivers her role with shameless assurance.

This troupe has good fun addressing the audience. Silly quarrels between silly prospective suitors to young Anne Page entertain us. The rivalries of the inept make them foils to Falstaff’s less scrupulous intentions of seduction.

Shakespeare was showcasing Falstaff, in a sort of Fat Jack III. But in this presentation, with the original text essentially intact, director Todd succeeds in focusing instead on the journey of Frank Ford, husband to one of the merry wives.

Ford’s counterpart Page (Penny Smith) is not at all discomfited when they learn of the curious, identical love letters Falstaff has sent to the ladies. But Ford (Vicki Yoder) torments himself with jealousy and uncertainty over the virtue of his wife.

So of course, he makes things worse. He insinuates himself into Falstaff’s company under the guise of “Master Brook” (Brook – Ford – get it?) and suborns the knight with a packet of cash to seduce Mistress Ford so as to make her available for conquest. Sir Jack is happy to take money for the job he’s already got underway.

Falstaff’s succeeding accounts and assurances drive Ford further around the bend, so that he grows more disturbed and more comic with each succeeding incident.But at the finale, with doubt resolved and virtue rewarded, Ford reveals that his alter ego “Brook” does, after all, have the prospect of sleeping with Mistress Ford.

Vicki Yoder is so impressive in the role of Ford/Brook that during the intermission I was wondering whether she might have been better cast as Falstaff, the lord of misrule. She has the presence, expression and physical stature to have handled that interpretation.

But then, this is the Weird Sisters Collective. It is appropriate that Sir Jack remain smooth and mostly unrepentant, because would-be seducers are always out there. The better choice was to invest an actor/actress of Yoder's depth in a character who comes to redemption.

There is a lovely non-Shakespeare moment in the second half when Miss Anne Page (Johnson) is dancing in a darkened hall with her true beloved, Master Fenton (Martina Ohlhauser). She snuggles close, surprising the awkward Fenton, and kisses him. Then as they rotate in dreamland, that self-assured daughter reaches down and with one hand takes possession of his rump. Fade out. We know that there will be no one else in her future, once the plots get untangled.

Most of the other characters are silly quarrelers with impossibly funny accents or henchmen (henchpersons). But in passing, a couple of special tips of the hat: to Aména Moïnfar as the unsurprised servant to the French physician and to Brooks Louton as servant Peter Simple, stammeringly intimidated.

No curtain call for this cast! They exited from the dénouement straight out to the Vortex café, where they received friends and supporters streaming out from the theatre.

Bio and background of Director Susan Todd
posted alphabetically at UT's program for
"Performance in Public Practice"

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