Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Wife swap

Ruby Rose Fox, Bill Barclay, and Gabriel Kuttner in various disguises.  Photo(s): Stratton McCrady
Part of the Actors' Shakespeare Project gestalt is the idea that they're always on the run, searching for a found space to evoke, or match in some idiosyncratic way, the play they're putting on.  This is an interesting conceptual challenge - but for once, they have kind of scored with The Merry Wives of Windsor, which they're doing at Jimmy Tingle's in Davis Square (through Jan. 1), with Budweiser pennants festooning the stage, and swinging saloon doors for set pieces.  We're slumming, the set design telegraphs, but then so was Shakespeare when he wrote this play.

And fair enough - Shakespeare probably was slumming when he wrote this play; legend has it that Merry Wives was scripted in just a fortnight, at Queen Elizabeth's command that the Bard present "Falstaff in love." And I certainly agree with the consensus that the results are the weakest play in the canon (so it's good to have a legend like that one to explain its existence). Built around a watered-down version of Falstaff (probably because Elizabeth's edict contradicted everything the character stood for) and devised almost purely as an audience pleaser, Merry Wives in a way reveals Shakespeare at his most eager to please, as well as his workmanlike worst/best: he piles on the complications and plots-within-plots, as if to distract us from the lack of theme or development.  And thus, I admit, Wives is probably the one Shakespeare play that Diane Paulus is actually equipped to direct - it all but wags its tail at the audience and begs to be loved.  Still, this puppy is by the Bard true-bred - and so, inevitably, it has its fascinations.

Perhaps the first of these is the fact that, shocking as it may sound, Merry Wives of Windsor may be the most influential play Shakespeare ever wrote.  Why?  Because in it you find perhaps the first formulation of dinner-theatre and summer stock, as well as sitcom - the script even plays out as a series of episodes, and its wacky middle-class housewives pretty much bang out the template of frustration, exasperation and mock castration that has dominated domestic bourgeois comedy ever since.  And perhaps because it carved out this new niche in what had generally been a more anarchic and satiric comic tradition, Merry Wives is unusual in the canon in several ways: there is a wedding at the end of it, for example, but only one, and it's surrounded by a kind of mockery of the multi-couple nuptials that provide the finales of Shakespeare's courtship comedies (like Much Ado and Twelfth Night).

There's also hardly any nobility stalking the stage - except for Falstaff himself, who is, I suppose, only a knight errant, but who nevertheless represents something like the drunken dregs of the landed gentry in an emergent market-based economy.  Thus in the bustling suburb of Windsor, this lesser noble - who imagines his diminished status may still help him to a sexual conquest - is a laughing-stock, and the social structure of much of Shakespeare has been subtly up-ended.  Perhaps most surprisingly, despite seeming moments of misrule, and almost too much comic action, nobody in Windsor much changes - and nobody is ever actually cuckolded, or really gets much of a comeuppance, either; thus the social compact doesn't budge an inch, and nothing about the society detailed in the script is truly transformed. Indeed, after his final humiliation, Falstaff doesn't march off, swearing revenge like Malvolio, but merely laughs at his own gulling and joins the party at his own expense.

This diminution of Shakespeare's general aims is reflected in the diminished horizons of one his greatest creations: the Falstaff of Merry Wives is only an anorexic shadow of the overstuffed giant who dominates Henry IV,  Parts 1 & 2 (and who haunts Henry V). Shakespeare affords him only the occasional good line, and none of the shrewd, subversive insights that light up his earlier appearances in the canon (for truth be told, the suburbanites of Windsor should really be the victims of his wit, rather than vice versa).  This has led many a postmodern critic - most of whom are more enamored of Falstaff than, I think, Shakespeare was - to decry the play.

Richard Snee is tickled by merry wives Esme Allen and Marianna Bassham.

But intriguingly, real Shakespearean fire does occasionally flicker in The Merry Wives of Windsor - not around Falstaff, but rather in the lines of Master Ford, who is driven to a jealous monomania by the (all-in-fun) flirtations of his clever wife.  I'm not sure why, but I always feel something like the sketch of a Shakespearean self-portrait in this character.  Certainly, there are other jealous obsessives in the canon (Othello, Posthumus, Leontes), but there's a psychological (rather than poetic) edge to Ford's rantings that always reads to me as close to the famously elusive author's own voice.  Then again, perhaps it's the rustic, middle-class setting that gives this echo to the character's cadences; after all, the town of Windsor is not that far from Stratford-upon-Avon, as Shakespeare has ripped Falstaff from the Plantagenet era of Henry IV and plunked him down in the world of his own upbringing.  Does this mean, however, that in the fraught relationship of the Fords we can catch a glimpse of the marriage between Will and Anne Hathaway?  Maybe - but maybe not.  All I have is a hunch, but then I tend to trust my hunches.

Anyway - back to the Actors' Shakespeare Project. I've only seen Merry Wives three times before (it's not like I seek it out), but all those productions generally worked about as well as this one did. At ASP, under the direction of Steven Barkhimer, a general, vaguely gonzo, atmosphere of "actor's holiday" pervaded the goings-on - there was a good deal of double (and even triple) casting, which led to many punchy caricatures and ree-dee-culous Franch ak-sants - along with a sing-along chorus borrowed from Love's Labour's Lost - but perhaps not quite as much depth as the play can, indeed, afford.  I also wondered whether the double casting - particularly around the romantic sub-plot (the same actress played the ingénue as well as one of her suitors, while her other pursuers were both played by the same guy) scrambled the convoluted plot beyond recognition; my advice is, if you don't know the play, be sure to read the synopsis before going in. Still, even if you can't follow the plot, a lot of the hijinks are cute and clever - the show generally charts the arc of a smart-alecky college production.

But I'm afraid as Falstaff, local stage vet Richard Snee proved a disappointment - Snee's so confident that he sometimes phones things in, and I'm afraid he's too often on speed-dial here (although to be fair, he still wins the occasional laugh).  The wives themselves were quite a bit better - newcomer Esme Allen beamed like an Elizabethan-era Amy Poehler, while ASP stalwart Marianna Bassham made a smartly confident Mistress Ford.  Alas, she didn't quite limn her complex relationship with her husband as much as I've seen some actresses manage - an obvious missed opportunity, given that the reliable Michael Forden Walker gave Master Ford a surprisingly twisted intensity.  Meanwhile, around the edges of the production, there was droll, inventive work from Gabriel Kuttner and Bill Barclay.  But I also have to confess that I missed the hints of the green world that the Bard brings to his finale (here, the fairies of Windsor forest danced to disco); still, overall I enjoyed myself, off and on, which may be all you can really do with this particular play - although I hope someday to be proven wrong about that.

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