The Merry Wives of Windsor Towers
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
July 14, 2012
The Drilling Company delivers a modern, sassy version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Hamilton Clancy, kicking off the 2012 season of Shakespeare in the Park(ing) Lot. This adaptation of Shakespeare's comedy moves the action to the Lower East Side in the present day, exactly where and when it is being presented. As such, the characters are a mismatched bunch of New Yorkers who all speak in different accents and references to local places are peppered into the text. Most of this serves the sense of fun and mischief the play is known for. But some choices are more successful than others.
The main plot of Merry Wives is that Sir John Falstaff, a penniless retired knight, writes letters of love to two well-to-do married women in town: Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. The husbands of these wives are acquainted with Falstaff's plan to cuckold them. Meanwhile Mistress Page and Mistress Ford, being best friends, tell each other about the letters and plot to humiliate Falstaff for his knavery.
True to the Lower East Side setting, there are many accents happening on stage. Some of this is written into the play by Shakespeare himself. Dr. Caius, a suitor to Mistress Page's daughter, is written as a French character with many French words in his text. Played in the parking lot by Drew Valins with a truly ridiculous French accent and manner the effect is completely hilarious. In this production the character of Hugh Evans, a pastor, is played to the silly hilt with Southern zeal by Andy Markert. The born-again evangelical posturing works very well with the character's text and also because the other characters complain that no one can understand him. The character of the Host of the Garter is here played with an Indian accent (by Sajeev Pillai) which works because the cadence and structure of his text is very distinct from rest of the play and oddly well-suited to an Indian accent. He also has a lot of "bully" this and "bully" that in his lines (as a term of endearment in Shakespeare's time) which, changed to "bolly," makes good fun. But Falstaff's comrade Pistol is played with a cartoonish Italian accent which is not as effective as the others. With an upwards lilt at the end of so many words the rhythm of the language is completely thrown and I found myself straining to understand him. The wealthy Mistress Page, played by Victoria Campbell, throws a lot of extra syllables of Miss-Piggy-esque shrieks, "hmf's" and foot stamps into her text. The energy she expended in this business around her lines distracted from and diminished the importance of the lines themselves.
The most difficult part of making a modern, cosmopolitan version of Merry Wives is the final trick played on Falstaff which involves a pagan, haunted tree and fairies. Perhaps it was a weird plot stretch even in Shakespeare's own time. In this production the scene is given very brief treatment which is probably the best possible remedy.
There are some very strong performances which drive this mostly-successful romp. Karla Hendrick's Mistress Ford and Jean Marc Russ as her jealous husband are both very grounded and fully meet each insane moment in the play. Both use the audience skillfully and frequently, letting us into all of their realizations and emotional shifts. No production of Merry Wives could delight without an amazing Falstaff and David Marantz delivers up all the gross, self-satisfied, indignant comedy required. Veronica Cruz, as a sexy-nurse version of Mistress Quickly, was also a fun favorite of mine whenever she was onstage.
The most inspiring aspect of this production to me was the commitment both onstage and around it. While cars and pedestrians come in and out of the open municipal parking lot, the actors are always in character as they make their way around it to make their entrances and exits. The actors all throw themselves completely into their individual character choices in the service of Shakespeare's looney farce. The audience, matching the wide diversity of the characters onstage—theatre die-hards and neighborhood kids alike—were just as committed in receiving it. At 2.5 hours it is not a short play in the YouTube, sound-byte age. But as a tradition 20 years along, Drilling Company audiences get to the parking lot early, many bringing their own chairs (early birds snap up the ones provided) and some stand or sit on the ground. Most stayed for the duration, hung on all the humor of this 400-year-old comedy, and together we had a great time. To me this exemplifies the beauty of free theater in New York. It underlines the fact that theater is still a vital art form very much alive when it is simply made well and made accessible to everyone.