“Why, then the world’s mine oyster, which I with sword will open.” This play is a bit like opening that oyster with a sword. Like so many of Shakespeare’s comedies, it is a bit folly and irreverence, a bit absurd and ostentatious, and a bit baffling. The women of this play, those darn merry wives, decide to teach a lecher a lesson. And he just happens to be the drunk and ornery Falstaff we all know and love from Henry IV. In the end they get their comeuppance, for Falstaff, for their husbands, and all the those prattling spectators as well.
The short version is that Anne Page is to be wed. Her father wants one man, her mother another. But Anne prefers a third that neither parent abides. Sir John Falstaff also launches a plan to get money- he will woo the two matrons of notable houses because they hold their husbands’ purse strings. But the women share his letters and decide to outwit him and make an ass of his attempt to pursue them. They trick him three times before a happy ending where they all are invited to dine at the Page household and celebrate Anne’s marriage to one of those three men, but I won’t tell you which one, you’ll have to see for yourself.
The hands down reason to see this play is David Forrer, almost unrecognizable as Falstaff. With his red face, long beard, crazy hair, and crazier antics he is sure to please. Although a comedy, I felt it was mostly light-hearted fun, not a lot of LOL moments. Watching Forrer though I genuinely had a smile on my face throughout the play. His mannerisms and commitment to the word, action, and full character was commendable and not an easy feat. My favorite is when the fairies attack him, watch him carefully- there is so much going on in this scene but his acting here is what dreams are made of.
Emily Classen and Bethany Mayo play the Merry Wives, Alice Ford and Margaret Page. Classen’s hair was divine with that envious flip, and both were costumed beautifully thanks to Kendra Shapanus’ designs. Both women were completely entrenched in their roles as well, and the most fun of the night is watching them act “badly” to put on a show for Falstaff. To ask an actress to pretend to be subpar has to be challenging, but it looked like they nailed it and reveled in it! Their mirth was contagious and what drove the energy of the play.
Brian Gilbert as Dr. Caius, and Dominic Gladden as Justice Robert Shallow were a joy to watch for their physicality. But both had unwieldy accents that made some of their lines land, and some just get lost in the garble. Lauren Rommagnano as Anne Page, and Nym, and William Page was quite the quick-change artist with the most changes per show (or tied with Gilbert who also played Bardolph and had to keep redding his face, then washing it, then redding it again).
Jeff Miller was a remarkably hysterical Brook, and Frank Ford. Although he doubts his wife’s sincerity (insert eye roll), he does a lovely job of making his admonishments speak through subtle gestures such as his hair, eyes, and even posture. Excellent work, he really holds his own against David Forrer, and that is a massive compliment.
Michael Mitchell does a nice job of portraying the babbling Master Slender, Ali McIntosh is a bit over the top as the Host of the Garter, Jamil Johnson is solid as Fenton and Pistol, and Adam Henricksen does a lovely job of being the affable Mister Page who dotes on his wife, appeases his neighbor, and tries to marry his daughter as well as possible.
Melissa McGinley is a lovely Parson as Sir Hugh Evans. Again, I missed some of her lines due to the applied accent, although there are a few moments of sheer comedy because of her mispronunciations, misunderstandings, and general misses. Kay-Megan Washington is the conniving Mistress Quickly, unfortunately married to Falstaff, and too sweet at times to appear as devious as she is supposed to be. Listening to her sing “Rumor” during the intermission though is one not to be missed.
Jim Stimson lends his guitar skills as the music director and strummer for all the pre-show music (remember it begins thirty minutes before the play- get there early!), and the intermission. Tom Delise’s direction is rapid fire and high paced as per I’ve come to expect from BSF. I just think perhaps some judicious editing might be in order. The program refers to the R&J “two hours’ traffic of the stage” and adheres to a close to two-hour policy, but this was 2:40 with a 15-minute intermission. That is as long as the previous production of Hamlet, a four and half hour play from cover to cover. They seem to move forward at an abrupt clip, but I wonder if there could be a bit more trimming to make it slightly shorter. That is a bit of time to sit and sit and sit. Even if the matter is entertaining, my butt still goes numb at some juncture.
The goal of Baltimore Shakespeare Factory is of course to try and perform all of Shakespeare’s repertoire. I do appreciate that I get to see staged productions of plays I have never seen before (like this one!) and not just the same four or five tried and true that other companies rely on (too) heavily.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Go and see this production: a lesser known play with a fantastically frantic Forrer as Falstaff at its center. Baltimore Shakespeare Factory incorporates modern music, has a variety of characters, a merry adventure, some genuinely adorable antics, and an all around well-rounded cast. Just be prepared to sit awhile, but smile through the numbness and enjoy this ebullient entertainment. (I)
Running time two-hours and forty minutes with one fifteen-minute intermission. Running through August 18th.