Oregon Shakespeare Festival
First, two rather bizarre-dressed women and then an entire stage of quirky characters dance onto the multi-level Elizabethan stage, looking as if they had arrived from some sort of “Alice in Wonderland,” fractured-fairy-tale costume party. All are rocking out, singing in ‘80s-familiar harmony, “I wanna dance with somebody, I wanna feel the heat … Somebody who loves me.” While not quite the prologue most audience members might be expecting for William Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor, the huge, over-sized cut-outs of brightly colored flowers and plants on the stage should have been a hint upon entering that the latest rendition by Oregon Shakespeare Festival of this comedy about the beloved fat, oaf Falstaff who is always looking for love in all the wrong places was tonight going to be an over-the-top farce and a damn good time.
In Merry Wives of Windsor, Sir John Falstaff has been abandoned by his former pal Hal (now King Henry V) since Shakespeare’s Henry Parts I & II. The jolly scoundrel, rabble-rouser, and sometime thief is now hoping to re-fill his coffers by raiding the accounts of cuckolded husbands after he has wooed their wives into bed (namely Mistresses Page and Ford). This seeking out of love for money is not confined to the ol’ geezer since a line-up of odds-and-ends suitors is also vying for the hand of Mistress Page’s highly eligible and both physically and financially attractive daughter, Anne. While Justice Shallow’s rather gay nephew (and thus reluctant suitor) Slender, a French doctor named Caius, and a Welsh clergyman with a ridiculous accent are all seeking the rich girl’s hand, she has her eyes set on a handsome courtier, Fenton, whom both her parents outright dismiss. In the meantime, Sir John has been found out by his two, potential trysts (and best friends) as having sent them both identical letters of woo, and they set out on a series of tricks to teach the deceiving knight a lesson, two, or even three that he will never forget. Duels, disguises, double-crossings, and cross-dressings begin to pile on in heaps as unwanted, potential lovers head down paths that in some cases – especially for a certain knight – may lead them into the smelly Thames or worse.
Almost every aspect of the production Dawn Monique Williams has orchestrated as director is exaggerated to the hilt. Motions of hands by characters are often over-done in ways one might see in a cartoon film. Facial expressions are often like those seen in the close-ups in the silent films of the ‘20s. Colors of costumes, lighting (Jennifer Schriever), and set pieces (Regina Garcia) are like those from a child’s coloring book – stunningly iridescent and of hues not quite of this world. The costumes themselves (designed by Ulises Alcala) are billowed, towering, and full of tongue-in-cheek choices – each worth a longer look than possible. Action is at times like in a three-ring circus, with one or more minor characters trying to do things like get untangled from a rope on a balcony above while the main scene action is occurring below. And all the way through, there is an ongoing ‘80s soundtrack the likes of Whitney Houston, Heart, Shana Twain, and Talkin’ Heads where characters suddenly break into song (Darcy Danielson, vocal arranger) and/or dance moves (Valerie Rachelle, choreographer) to highlight the iambic-pentameter banter of Shakespeare’s lines.
The result in like an over-loaded banquet table where there is so much to consume that at times, any one dish is difficult to taste for its own uniqueness. Add to all this a script that is full of four-century-old puns and jokes and a host of servants and ruffians whose alliances sometimes seem to be changing scene-to-scene, and the experience becomes at times so full of confusion and over-stimulation to lose some of the original fun and wit of the Bard’s script and story.
That being said, there is much to like and much to laugh at, given the excellent cast of kooky characters. Chief among them is of course Falstaff, here played in reverse drag by K.T. Vogt. Her Falstaff is like a bad-boy Santa Claus in his rotund shape, cheeks red and round, and a raucous laugh that often is close to a echoing ‘ho-ho-ho.’ Falstaff’s eyes open as wide as his mouth at times and his eyebrows seem to move at least an inch, with movements of both in all directions that can be read many rows back in the large, outdoor arena. Her Falstaff bounces with elbows bopping up and down, always with expressions devilish and delightful — all as if just drawn by a cartoon’s artist. And what this Falstaff does with his extended, quilted cod piece with its own zipper is almost worth the price of the night’s ticket. Ms. Vogt creates a Falstaff unlike any I have quite ever seen — like the rest of the production, often over-done in effect in many respect — but always hilarious and memorable.
Among the large and excellent cast, there are certainly other stand-outs deserving note. Catherine Castellanos is a Mistress Quickly who seems never to stop moving, using her entire body to accent her lines and her many, added side humphs and haws, voice inflections, and mini-comments. Al Espinosa also liberally ab-limbs his Pistol and gives a knock-out ‘80s number at one point with four, rocking ladies stepping in to back him up in the back-ground. As Master Ford, Rex Young is increasingly a hilarious madman in his unwarranted jealousy of a wife who is altogether innocent of an affair he is sure she is having. His wife, Mistress Ford (Amy Newman), and her cohort, Mistress Page (Vilma Silva), are terrific as a sophisticated Twiddle-Dee, Twiddle-Dum pair, setting traps for Sir John as he seduces them — blind to their revenge-seeking intent to turn the old fool into the ass that he really is.
For all the excellent performances, two are somewhat problematic. The strange accent and vocal manipulations employed by Sara Bruner as Doctor Caiusare are too often difficult to understand, with words and lines as a result being dropped and lost. As the overly fey Slender who seems clearly not interested in Anne’s hand (even though pressed into being a potential suitor by his uncle, Shallow), Cristofer Jean plays for many laughs based on gay stereotypes that in 2017 seem way out of date and are of the kind employed twenty years ago. I would have liked him to make his point that he is not interested in women (and instead men) in ways that do not play so much onto the mannerisms too often mocked of gay men.
For this Merry Wives of Windsor, a pre-read of the play’s story will go a long way in ensuring a fully enjoyable evening. There is so much going with such a host of eye-popping characters that without some preparation, who is who and what is what may be difficult to discern. But with some pre-study, a fun-fest evening full of visual and aural stimulants is guaranteed.
Rating: 3.5 E