Merry Wives of Windsor: Plodding play gets paisley production - Baltimore Post-ExaminerBaltimore Post-Examiner

Merry Wives of Windsor: Plodding play gets paisley production

Leslie Malin as Mistress Page and Kate Michelsen Graham as Mistress Ford are the Merry Wives of Windsor *

It isn’t very often that a theater critic has a Friday evening off, but a snafu with the BSO last week left me with an unexpected opening in my calendar.  For a lark, I decided to take in a community theater production of The Apple Tree.  A good friend of mine had a very small role in this dated, 3-act monstrosity.  I should have known it was going to be a long night when my friend’s perceptive partner (who joined me on this last minute foray) asked me to leave my reviewer’s notebook at home.

For those unfamiliar with The Apple Tree (it won some awards in 1967 and then pretty much disappeared), the show was the brainchild of the creative partnership of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick  – the same duo who penned the immensely popular Fiddler on the Roof.  Comparing the two shows, one might wonder if the authorship was really the same?  It is, of course, which only goes to prove that even talented writers can produce a regrettable play.  This is certainly the case with William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor – the current production by the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company (CSC).

Directed by Ian Gallanar, The Merry Wives of Windsor has long been regarded as one of the Bard’s weakest plays.  Though the story has had several operatic adaptations (most notably by Antonio Salieri and Giuseppe Verdi), it is telling that this play has never been given the big screen treatment.  Perhaps that is fitting, since the plot and characters are better suited to a situation comedy.

In the director’s notes, Gallanar says the challenge is to make the play funny.  This is never a good sign when you’re already working with an alleged comedy.  But Gallanar grabs these wives by the horns and then ups the ante by setting the action in the ever ludicrous 1970’s.

Kate Michelson Graham, Gregory Burgess and Leslie Malin

Gregory Burgess as Falstaff woos Merry Wives Kate Michelsen Graham and Leslie Malin

The story revolves around a paunchy, bankrupt knight, Falstaff, and his attempt to woo two wealthy women (Mistress Page and Mistress Ford.)  His seconds, Pistol and Nym, object to this scheme and tell the women’s husbands of Falstaff’s plan.  Master Page laughs it off, but Ford becomes jealous and seeks to trap the conniving knight.  The two wives also learn of the plan, along with Ford’s over-reaction, and decide to have some fun at both Falstaff’s and Ford’s expense.  There is a subplot about the Page couple’s cross-efforts to arrange a marriage for their daughter, Mistress Ann, but it comes off as filler to pad the fluff, which is the demise of Falstaff’s design.

Given the plodding nature of the script, it is a credit to both the director and the cast that they are able to keep the audience attuned to the action.  That’s not to say Merry Wives is without its humor.  In one early scene, Slender offers his take on an arranged marriage to Ann, saying, “If there be no great love in the beginning, yet heaven may decrease it upon better acquaintance, when we are married and have more occasion to know one another: I hope, upon familiarity will grow more contempt.”

Later in the play, after Falstaff returns from being thrown in the river, he remarks, “You may know by my size, that I have a kind of alacrity in sinking.”

Michael P. Sullivan

Michael P. Sullivan in a moment of panic as Mr. Brook

Falstaff survives his sinking only to endure a few more indignities.  Meanwhile, the audience endures a play which could have used some judicious editing.

Again, the cast does a pretty good job, in spite of the wanting work, and should be applauded for their effort.  CSC regular Gregory Burgess appears as Falstaff and displays a great knack for comedic timing.  Burgess’ grey framed cat-that-ate-the-canary grin also bears a slight resemblance to the late Redd Foxx, which makes the tie-in to the 70’s all the more tangible.

Lesley Malin as Mistress Page and Kate Michelsen Graham as Mistress Ford were clearly having fun in their garish get-ups as the foils for both Falstaff and their clueless husbands.

Falstaff’s fickle servants – Pistol and Nym – were ably played by Frank B. Moorman and Joe Grasso.  Jeff Keogh gave Master Page the appropriate air of misguided authority.  Dave Gamble handled the befuddled Robert Shallow with aplomb.

Broadly playing both a flummoxed Master Ford and his sly alter ego Mr. Brook, Michael P. Sullivan seemed out of step with his fellow players.  In a similar vein, Scott Alan Small as Doctor Caius, also played his part way over the top.  Scott added a twist which mixed elements of Inspector Clouseau with Eli Wallach’s mustachioed Mexican Tuco character.  This isn’t to say Small (or Sullivan) were bad.  They actually had some very funny moments.  And there is nothing wrong with all-out parody if everyone is on board, but that doesn’t appear to be the case with this production.

Gerrad Alex Taylor and Bess Kaye

Gerrad Alex Taylor as Master Fenton shares a secret with busybody Mistress Quickly (Bess Kaye)

In the sub-plot, Lisa Davidson (Mistress Anne Page), Vince Eisenson (Master Slender), and Gerrad Alex Taylor (Master Fenton) were much more subdued.  Séamus Miller, on the other hand, had a few embarrassing moments as Caius’ servant, John Rugby (what in the world was he doing with that ski pole???)

The remainder of the cast included a delightfully saucy Bess Kaye as Mistress Quickly; Ben Harris as the cleric Sir Hugh Evans; Kecia A. Campbell as the Hostess of the Garter Inn and Jeff Miller as Peter Simple.

Costumes by Mindy Braden were a frightening blast from the recent past.  Daniel O’Brien’s set incorporated both astro-turf and blond plywood paneling (who knew they still made that stuff???).

The Merry Wives of Windsor may not be a great play, but hats off to CSC for doing its best to make it a groovy situation.


The Chesapeake Shakespear Company’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor runs to March 9 at the Howard County Center for the Arts, Black Box Theatre.  Running time for this play is about 2:25 with one intermission.  Tickets, showtimes and other information is available by visiting CSC online.

* All Photos by Teresa Castracane Photography.

About the author

Anthony C. Hayes

Anthony C. Hayes is an actor, author, raconteur, rapscallion and bon vivant. A former reporter at the Washington Herald, and Voice of Baltimore, Tony's poetry, photography, humor, and prose have also been featured in Smile, Hon, You're in Baltimore!, SmartCEO, Magic Octopus Magazine, Destination Maryland, Los Angeles Post-Examiner, Alvarez Fiction, and Tales of Blood and Roses. Contact the author.

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