Currently on the Bard on the Beach BMO Main Stage is a remount of 2012’s highly successful The Merry Wives of Windsor, directed by Johnna Wright. With a flimsy plot and a feeble subplot, The Merry Wives is one of Shakespeare’s weakest plays.
Wright maximizes the comedy by transporting it from 15th century Windsor (England) into the swinging 60’s of Windsor (Ontario) and injecting wallops of music.
Extraneous minor roles were snipped out and replaced with song but no character is safe from an over-the-top makeover via Drew Facey’s quirky costumes into stereotypes of the era.
The transformed musical is a rollicking romp for young, old and especially those who enjoy 60’s country music.
Most of the action takes place at the town watering hole, the Garter Inn. Pam Johnson’s ingeniously versatile set of moving walls borrowed from sister production Romeo and Juliet (alternating nights on the same stage) is unfolded to reveal the kitschy interior of a bar, complete with antlers and an open-mic stage where actors belt out aptly-chosen tunes.
The play opens with Mistress Page and Mistress Ford teasing audiences with Lee Hazlewood’s These Boots Are Made for Walkin’, thus setting the stage for the slapstick to follow.
The main plot of the play centers around these ladies who pull pranks on an unsuspecting Sir John Falstaff. Mind you, he had it coming for sending identical love-letters to the women in hopes of seducing, then swindling them.
Mistress Ford’s antics raise the suspicion of her husband and his jealous actions generate more comedic fodder. Meanwhile, in the subplot, Mistress Page’s daughter Anne has attracted three suitors.
Mistress Page prefers the deadpan youth, Slender; Mistress Page advocates for a flamboyant, French physician, Dr. Caius; Anne herself fancies Fenton, a leather-sporting lad à la Grease. While the adults are busy deceiving one other, the youngsters manage to outsmart them all in the end.
[Ashley Wright, Jennifer Lines]
Ashley Wright reprises his gut-busting role as the clueless Falstaff as do Amber Lewis and Katey Wright as Mistresses Ford and Page respectively. They were a trio of hilarity in 2012, so why change a good thing?
Ben Elliot previously played the nerdy Simple but that role is given a new spin in the hands of Dawn Petten. Instead Elliot saunters around as the awkward, straight-laced Slender, a character that doesn’t possess enough depth to showcase his comedic instincts.
As musical director, however, Elliot’s able to brandish his considerable talents and help sell Wright’s vision of the show. The music (more than the content of the play) is what makes this production ludicrously playful.
Falstaff serenades an audience member with Mac Davis’ Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me and, in a twist, Mister Ford apologizes with Tammy Wynette’s Stand By Your Man.
Valerie Easton and Nicholas Harrison coordinate precisely-timed onstage shenanigans that keep the audience in stitches all night.
Reprising the role of Ford, Scott Bellis exudes heaps of needless indignation and outrage, tempered only when he masquerades as the beret-wearing poet, Brooks. His exchanges with Falstaff while in disguise constitute some of the most gleeful moments of the play.
Jennifer Lines as Mistress Quickly is everybody’s messenger, delivering reassuring counsel with a mischievous helping of innuendo.
Andrew Chown lets his jester juices flow in his laugh-a-minute performance as heavily accented Doctor Caius. An improvement to the show might be increased comedic touches with more Canadian flair. Perhaps Caius could have been played as an uptight French Canadian rather than a chichi Parisian and Pastor Evans (Andrew McNee) could have taken on a Newfie rather than Welsh accent.
The 2012 staging was a bit more enjoyable because audiences were able to get closer to the outrageous characters in a more intimate setting. Nevertheless, this updated version is still heaps of fun and is sure to be a crowd-pleaser until the end of its run on September 24 on the BMO Mainstage.
Photos by David Blue.