The Merry Wives of Windsor is the only play that Shakespeare set in a small English village during the Elizabethan period. Since it inspires audiences far less than the more complex Much Ado About Nothing and Twelfth Night, stage directors are eager to spice it up in whatever way they can. Eager to mine the play’s “battle of the sexes” theme, plot machinations, mistaken identity, and Falstaffian ruses, directors can’t resist transporting its context from Windsor, England, to another place and time.
In re-imagining Merry Wives for Shakespeare Dallas, director Rene Moreno grafts the slapstick and farce of Barney Fife and The Andy Griffith Show onto Shakespeare’s light, domestic fabliau about cozening and cuckoldry. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, TX, a retired Colonel John Falstaff is duped and thwarted at every turn soon after he arrives in the small town of Windsor, TX to celebrate Veteran’s Day. This riotous concept held promise for an audience of faithful Shakespeare lovers willing to watch and picnic in 100-degree temperatures during a relentless Texas drought. But throughout the show, many of the players proved both unskilled at comedy and ham-handed at delivering their lines. With notable exceptions, this production suffers from that perennial curse of community theatre—an abundance of overacting and overdramatizing.
The time is 1965. When the opportunistic Col. Falstaff arrives in town, he brings a retinue of low-level Army veterans, but two of them soon pursue their own alliances. Falstaff, driven by financial motives, embarks on a self-serving plot to seduce two respectable Windsor matrons, Margaret Page and Anne Ford, and determines to make cuckolds out of their husbands. The adapted script is sprinkled with topical one-liners and familiar Texas anthems that keep the audience engaged as Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford find ways to trick the haughty colonel and their own husbands, while suitors vie for the hand of the lovely Anne Page. Both denizens of and visitors to Windsor speak in exaggerated North Texas twangs. In one comical touch, they spit on the ground at every mention of Crawford, Texas. Still, too much of Shakespeare’s humor and the jokes added onto Shakespeare’s script fall flat.
As the lascivious Falstaff, actor Bradley Campbell is responsible for many of the production’s most effective scenes and sight gags. Although Kateri Cale has some uneven moments, she confidently renders the wily Alice Ford, the foil who shrewdly bests Falstaff at every turn. As her cohort Margaret Page, Constance Gold Parry is much less facile in her role. Alternating between the character of Frank Ford, who speaks with a Texas dialect, and the Deep Southern persona of the guise of Mr. Brook, T.A. Taylor consistently satisfies the demands of both parts.
Given that Falstaff’s followers are thinly sketched in Shakespeare’s script, the actors playing Lieutenant Pistol (Austin Tindle) and Corporal Nim (Matt Fowler) carry out their revenge against their superior in an entertaining fashion. It’s a shame that Father Hugh Evans doesn’t have a bigger role in this show, since Michael Johnson’s rendering of the Irish priest is extremely well executed.
The subplot centering on the wooing of Anne Page is quite disappointing. Kara Torvik-Smith, who serves as Mistress Quickly, Dr. Caius’s nurse and housekeeper, has difficulty finding the humor within her lines. In this pivotal role, Torvik-Smith is sometimes hard to follow as she delivers letters between the wives and Falstaff, and as the one being paid by all three suitors to win Anne Page’s affection. As Hostess of the Garter Inn and Motel, Donjalea Reynolds Chrane presents a great physical caricature of a biker chick, but she, too, overdoes her part. Josh Heard, who sounded curiously out of breath during his entire performance, is a feckless version of young Fenton, a rodeo champion in love with Anne. As Dr. Caius, the French physician, Aaron Roberts offers a one-dimensional send-up reminiscent of Peter Sellers doing Inspector Clouseau. Christian Taylor, playing the simpleton Abraham Slender, stands out among the figures in this subplot, but at times he gets much more mileage out of his outrageously effeminate costumes and poses than he does from his lines.
Several set pieces in the company’s adaptation have nothing to do with Shakespeare, but they prove to be audience favorites. In one, Mistress Quickly plays the hostess of a skit involving the three bachelors who vie for Anne’s hand. Each man walks onstage to the tune of the TV soundtrack of The Dating Game followed by the sexy Anne, herself. Actor Joseph Maddox occasionally sings a few solos as Private Robin. This is presumably to keep the audience awake, and it seems to do the trick.
Putting acting aside for a moment, this production develops the Veteran’s Day motif in creative ways. The colors and single-star emblem of the Texas flag are incorporated into a visual signature of sets and costuming. A monumental painted flag decorates the main wooden backdrop. Smaller versions of the Texas flag decorate Mr. Page’s western shirt and hat, and red, white and blue piping color the matrons’ dresses. Playing the part of Peter Simple, Drew Wall sports a Cub Scout costume and waves his own flag.
Contemporary Bush-era jokes and non-Shakespearean gags, rather than the irony and humor of Shakespeare’s script, evoke most of the show’s laughter. This comes as no surprise. Shakespeare, himself, was a consummate adapter of the romance and drama of his predecessors and peers, but as posterity has shown, his adaptations, when presented by actors who understand the subtle art of comedy, have stood the test of time.
Shakespeare Dallas’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, TX plays through July 24 at the Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre, 1500 Tenison Parkway, Dallas, TX 75223. Admission is $10 on Fridays and Saturdays. (Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, $10 donation is requested.) Visit www.shakespearedallas.org.