Friday, July 11, 2008

Merry Wives of Windsor

I've heard too many intelligent people, Shakespeareans, say that "Merry Wives of Windsor" is a bad play to ignore it. The Old Globe in San Diego makes no attempt to ignore the play's ignominious reputation either. The program includes a blurb by Alan Brien that says "The Merry Wives of Windsor should be allowed to remain in the basement as the only really botched job in Shakespeare's repertoire." The other blurbs weren't much better, and they set my mind at ease a little because it seemed like they knew they were going against centuries of negative press. It also shows that they were willing to have fun.

Director Paul Mullins set his Merry Wives in the old west. It was the second cowboy setting I've seen this year. My expectations were low since Ashland's "Comedy of Errors" was so horrible, but they didn't need to be. The production was surprisingly very good. Falstaff (Eric Hoffmann) was great because he managed to be very funny, very gross, and even though we like him, we don't feel too bad about what befalls him at the hands of the wily wives. The wives, Celeste Ciulla and Katie MacNichol, were charming, by the way. The brilliant Bruce Turk was wonderful as Frank Ford, really the whole cast was great. They had to be great.

And as for the cowboy stuff, I think it worked incredibly well. A lot of time is spent in the saloon, a familiar scene and not as disgusting as the Elizabethan era taverns we're used to seeing drunks in on stage and film. There's woo-hoo dancing girls and sassy and saucy women all over. The production reminded me of the 1950 "Annie Get Your Gun" with Betty Hutton, when westerns were musical and fun and maybe a little campy. When the merry wives agree on a plan and shake hands, the comic potential in such an agreement isn't wasted; it's almost like a cartoon or an episode of "Saved by the Bell" when the gang gets together to develop an elaborate hoax to teach Screech a lesson--and isn't Screech just another Falstaff? The play wants to have fun. and vague memories of MGM movies set in 'the west' let this production get away with it. Meanwhile, the costumes helped tell the story, which is what they're supposed to do--hellooooo. I am sick of seeing plays in which the costumes don't do anything. Falstaff walks into Mistress Ford's parlor and flings his hat thirty feet to land on the mounted horns of an elk. Abraham Slender gets his hat pulled off with a string as if it were shot off. Falstaff's red long johns are a crack up with his big belly sticking through. And the last scene looks like the haunted mansion at Disneyland: scary and somehow friendly at the same time. Genius.

I can't believe I'm talking about "The Merry Wives of Windsor" like this. Next time I hear a bad word about this play, I am going to tell them about Paul Mullins at the Old Globe.

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