It is a credit to the ingenuity of the Harrisburg Shakespeare Company and Gamut Theatre Group that their decision to perform The Merry Wives of Windsor, with British accents, in a setting contemporary to Shakespeare, comes off not as a standard and expected reading of the play, but as an intriguing contrast to the wide-ranging imaginative settings of their previous productions. Director Clark Nicholson justifies this decision by pointing out that of all of Shakespeare’s plays, The Merry Wives most firmly depends on the culture of Elizabethan England for its satire; similarly, much of its other humor comes from the interplay of social class and language. Given that Falstaff himself seems to have done some light time-traveling from the history plays covering the early 1400s, the cast’s range of modern accents (British and otherwise) strikes a good compromise with anachronism by conveying a strong sense of setting as they make Shakespeare’s four hundred-year-old words their own.
Even when the accents are not entirely successful, the cast makes up for it with energy and physical humor. Michelle Kay Smith’s thick Cockney obscures Mistress Quickly’s misunderstandings and malapropisms, but she maintains the comic relief with her perpetual crab walk and slapstick gags. Thomas Weaver steals the show as Doctor Caius, notable not only for his outrageous French accent but also his hilariously exaggerated mannerisms, from his elaborately violent pantomime of Sir Hugh Evans’ fate before their duel to the running gag of his inability to navigate the stairs at anything less than a sashay. Alexis Dow Campbell (Mistress Page) and Tara Herweg-Mann (Mistress Ford) are at their funniest when their characters are directly engaged with tricking Falstaff, playing up the humor of the mischief with parodies of RP accents and “traditional” Shakespearean acting. These also serve as yet another level of mockery for Falstaff, as Jeff Wasileski plays the fat knight with a distinct level of gravitas and grandiosity – which contrast all the better with his frequent pratfalls. Though the cast’s greatest talents seem to lie in physical comedy, their overall performances are relatively strong as well.
Scenic designer Andrew Nyberg’s set is somewhat more literal with its modern spin on an Elizabethan setting. Windsor is portrayed as thoroughly suburban, a mix of well-groomed paths and stylized trees flanked by narrow Tudor buildings. These rotate to form the different locations, a fun and clever detail: the exterior of the Pages’ house revolves to reveal the bar of the Garter Inn, while the infamous crowded closet in Doctor Caius’ house transforms into the Fords’ home (complete with laundry basket and a garrett suitable for changing into the Fat Woman of Brainford), and both turn into blank ivy-clad walls that give the park an illusion of privacy.
Jen Kilander’s costume design nicely evokes Elizabethan fashion while also accounting for the characters’ classes and provinciality. Mistresses Ford and Page wear colorful yet sturdy skirts and bodices that show their wealth but also mark them as firmly middle-class; the men pair doublets with baggy trousers that have no place in court. Smaller details also reveal some personality: Falstaff and his followers are well-dressed but sloppy, Doctor Caius’ lean blue velvet jacket and breeches are stylish yet ridiculous, and the feather in Ford’s hat quivers in indignation as he rants in the depths of jealousy.
The production gets off to a rather slow start, as having the audience acclimate to the cast’s accents while the characters are mostly delivering straight exposition is not very ideal. However, once the roguery begins, the production settles into a nice rhythm. Though they might not always be linguistically accurate, the cast is certainly confident with their accents, and easily balances these with the other demands of the play. Nicholson pairs the broadness of the acting with plenty of gags that show off the cast’s talents at physical comedy and provides a steady stream of amusing moments.
Ultimately, the production succeeds not only because of its setting, but also because of its attitude. “So, there you go,” Nicholson writes in the program notes. “Finally we’re producing a Shakespeare play the way that a small number of audience members throughout Gamut’s history have told us that they thought we ought to have been doing it. But probably not for the reasons that they might think we should. Heh, heh.” The ability to poke fun at traditionalists while using their intellectual understanding of Shakespeare to create better comedy certainly echoes the playful spirit of the titular characters. Fortunately, the Harrisburg Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor is more than willing to share the last laugh with everyone.