If you're going to do a 400-year-old farce with lots of obscure Elizabethan jokes, you had better at least get the physical hijinks right. With less at stake than in The Comedy of Errors, and with comic business less brutal than in The Taming of the Shrew, The Merry Wives of Windsor may be Shakespeare's closest approximation to pure farce. The plot is largely a series of practical jokes, with fat Sir John Falstaff as their butt. The problems with the current Lake City Playhouse production of The Merry Wives are that the cast members don't understand the verbal comedy and don't invigorate the physical shenanigans enough.
The three practical jokes are aimed at curing Falstaff of his lechery. They include transporting him out of Ford's house twice, first in a smelly laundry basket and then in disguise as the fat Witch of Brentford. In the finale, he is cajoled into putting on another disguise that involves wearing cuckold's horns and being pinched all over by "fairies." Far from being the duper, he is the one who has been duped. It's all a lighthearted way of mocking the forces that would destabilize any nice, middle-class community -- like Windsor, for example, or Coeur d'Alene. Womanizing, extremes of jealousy, gossip, the assumption that women are merely mindless chattel and just plain stupidity -- all these would undermine any community. In the world of the merry wives, all these anti-social impulses must be punished.
Yet there wasn't a genuine sense of community among the cast members. Too many of them recited their lines in monotones, then looked relieved that the burden was no longer on them for carrying the conversation forward. Several actors had the disconcerting habit of casting stealthy glances at the audience, as if to see how their jokes were going over.
Not very well. At least first-time director Debra Coppernoll had the good sense to cut some of the Elizabethan arcana, although probably not enough. The pace was too slow throughout. Diction was unclear at times, particularly among Falstaff's followers. Embarrassingly, "Oh, dear" and even "Okay" were imported into some speeches. And granted that such Renaissance words as "kibes," "rapier," "cozened" and "swinge" are not exactly in current use, nonetheless the cast managed to mispronounce all and misunderstand most.
When the two merry wives do their scheming, we missed the sense of spontaneity, fun and mischievousness that ought to be in those scenes, mostly because the two actresses adopted such a slow pace and then kept forgetting their lines. The wives need to convey a wider range of emotions. Are they irritated by Falstaff's advances or amused by them? Aren't they the least bit flattered? Most of all, aren't they enjoying their own cleverness in counter-scheming against the portly old knight?
Some actors didn't read the text carefully enough. Slender's lines clearly indicate that while courting Anne Page, far from feeling in control, he feels nervous and unsure of himself. He's ostentatiously pining away for the lovely Anne, and yet Keenan Bianchi's general demeanor in the role was one of confident masculinity, as if joshing with his home boys.
Jordan Gookin is one of those actors whose mere presence onstage is enough to elicit laughter. Mischief, self-mockery and giddiness bubble out of him all at once. He enlivens whatever scene he's in. But in the role of Fenton, he is relying too much on the same old tried-and-true comic mannerisms. Fenton is this play's handsome young man, clearly the best of the three suitors for Anne Page's hand. His character has some dimension: he's initially mercenary -- out to get Master Page's money -- and he has a history of hanging out with drinking buddies. Gookin conveys none of that. In his hands, Fenton becomes just a bashful wimp who stumbles his way into getting the girl. While sometimes delightful, he's performing a version of himself, not Shakespeare's character.
On the positive side, it was somehow a nice humanizing and welcoming touch at the outset, as a kind of prologue to the play, for Fenton, Anne Page and Mistress Page (Gookin, Amy Delcambre and Terri Knapp) to come out and explain some of the relationships among the characters (and to plug the evening's fund-raising raffles, too).
Any production of Merry Wives centers on Falstaff, and Ron Ragone really looks the part. As "that whale with tons of oil in his belly," all grizzled and with eyes darting about for signs of ardor, he convinces us that he has "a kind of alacrity in sinking" when dumped into the Thames with the laundry. Dressed in lace cuffs for his seduction scenes, he presented a rotund dandy to the skeptical wives. It's worth watching his mute impatience when Mistress Quickly, the town gossip, arrives with news of an imminent assignation. Ragone carries this show.
The LCP is the kind of community theater where the actors show up in costume during intermission selling candy bars and hawking raffle tickets. The free wine on opening night helped release first the spectators' giggles and then their horse-laughs. If the community bonded as a result of this production, then all the better. My worry, however, is that customers went away pleased with the actors, but bored by the Shakespeare. Well directed and well acted farces, even if they are from four centuries away, should still pack a lot of fun and merriment. Unfortunately, these wives were closer to moribund than merry.