By William Shakespeare
Directed by Spiro Veloudos
At the Publick Theatre, July 1996

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

According to legend, Will Shakespeare wrote "The Merry Wives of Windsor" at the command of Queen Elizabeth, who wanted to have a comedy showing the Fat Knight Sir John Falstaff "in love" as part of a wedding celebration at Windsor Castle. Shakespeare recycled the low-life crew from the Boars Head Tavern of "Henry IV", circa 1400, added some local-color material about the mating maneuvers of the middle-class merchants of Windsor town circa 1600, padded it out with current court gossip and in-jokes, and topped it off with a mini-masque featuring musical Faeries and compliments to the Queen.

Faced with making this concoction pleasing as well as intelligible to a modern American audience, director Spiro Veloudos has decided to shift the setting. The Publick Theatre's Windsor, with its ornamental iron balcony and overstuffed fringed furniture, looks a lot like New Orleans in the years before the turn of the twentieth century. That era, like the Elizabethan, was a time of economic and political expansion, when in parts of the South a warrior code was giving way to the commercial ethos. Falstaff, the old soldier, wears riding boots, leather vest, a long drab coat, and an officer's plumed hat-- he looks like a scout from one of the military actions in the Wild West, or a Rough Rider from the Spanish -American War. Ensign Pistol (Chris Burke) wears a noncom's version of the same outfit, and blusters with a Scots accent. Bardolf (Gary Nicholson) is red nosed, and bare-chested under his leather vest, with a skinhead pate. Nondescript Nym (Steve Rotolo) maintains his compulsive iteration of the word "humor" -- mentally substitute the F-word?

Falstaff's intended victims, the tradesmen Master Page and Master Ford, are garbed in business suits. When the jealous Ford disguises himself as Master Brooke to pump Falstaff for information about the progress of his wife's seduction, he wears wire-rim glasses, a black cape and a bowler hat. The contrast between the respectable townsfolk and the Falstaff crew, who are at once shabbier and more glamorous, is nicely made. As for the country gentry, Bob Jolly's Justice Shallow is the very pink of an outmoded fashion in a dove gray morning coat, top hat, and cane -- and very spry for his fourscore years. Shallow has his kinsman Slender well in hand, pulling the young man along in his wake as he bustles about with a brisk bowlegged stride.

Shakespeare's obedience to his sovereign in the matter of the plot of "Merry Wives" is more a matter of the letter than the spirit. "Falstaff in love" turns out to mean Falstaff trying to con one or the other of two middle aged married women from the newly-prosperous merchant class into believing that he is in love with her humble self-- and that his knightly position and nightly passion entitles him to share the woman's bed and her husband's purse. But Falstaff is so lazy, and so certain of middle-class gullibility, that he writes identical love letters to both Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. The wives, bosom buddies, compare notes and are outraged at the knight's presumption. How dare "this whale with so many tons of oil in his belly" insult them so? They vow to get even with Sir John, and most of the rest of the play is taken up with their revenge.

Deborah Shoenberg and Sheila Stasack are the Publick's wives, dividing the honors between them. Shoenberg's Alice Ford is the more high strung and fashionable one, Stasack's Page cozy and competent; but the wives work together in perfect harmony to bedevil Falstaff and deceive their husbands -- for the husbands' own good, of course.

John Herring's George Page is an ordinary nice guy, serving as straight man and foil for the more eccentric characters-- a role that should not be underestimated. Clifford Allen does very well with Frank Ford: a tricky business, because Ford is a realistic study of the corrosive moral effects of male jealousy, on a par with Othello or Leontes, pitched into the action of a bedroom farce. The audience, like his friends in Windsor, is embarrassed for Ford even as they laugh at his discomfiture. But Allen's Ford is not entirely unreasonable in his suspicions. His handsome wife is indeed lying to him, and William Gardiner's Falstaff is not a sodden old wreck barely able to hoist his pants over a mountain of belly, but a military man only a year or two past his prime and only a stone or three above his fighting weight. Gardiner's approach is more direct and less histrionic than is customary, but here it makes dramatic sense.

Indeed, most of Veloudos' transpositions work well. Playing Americans of a hundred years ago, his actors needn't worry too much about what sort of British accent the Windsor characters ought to have, and can concentrate on their relationships. The native-borns' mockery of the mangled English committed by the Welsh parson Sir Hugh Evans and the French physician Dr. Caius equates with the thousand ethnic jokes about broken English that were popular in the United States at a time of massive immigration.

The "Merry Wives" subplot has to do with choosing a husband for Sweet Anne (Zoe Segal-Reichlin), the Pages' teenage daughter. Doug Brandt has great fun with the character of Abraham Slender, a reluctant suitor well furnished with land and income but lacking in wit. Brandt raises a laugh with every tilt of his eyebrow. The parson, Sir Hugh, who favors Slender's suit -- for no particular reason but that his good Welsh heart wishes to see all his friends made happy -- is a wonderful part, and Mike Thurston plays him wonderfully, sketching the character's outline with broad strokes and then rounding it out and coloring it in with detail and subtilty. Thruston is especially fine in the scene where the parson waits in agonized anticipation for the fiery tempered Dr. Caius to show up to fight a duel with him. Pride, rage, fear, the chill of a dewy morning and the freezing guilt of an overburdened Christian Conscience -- Thruston manages to express all this with a few lines, some wordless noises between a whimper and a snarl, and the most economical of gestures. Frank Dixon's Dr. Caius is a fine comic characterization, too, and their scenes together a highlight of the play.

There are a few lapses. "My ranting Host of the Garter" Inn is played by an actress whose costume and manner imply that the Inn is a brothel and she is the madam of it. This leads to some pace-obstructing mugging in between the Host's lines -- lines which, admittedly, are now obscure and unamusing--- and to some awkwardness in the character's exchanges with the town's more respectable citizens. Mistress Quickly, too, is thrown off key by being transposed. Anne-Marie Cusson has plenty of warmth and presence, but Shakespeare's Quickly is an old woman who talks much faster than she thinks, and her talk is perfect Eastcheap. If the rhythm of Quickly's lines is right the part almost plays itself . Without the rhythm, even the best of actors is lost..

. Cusson's Quickly is also pressed into service as a blues-singing chanteuse in Veloudos updated version of the problematic masque at the play's end. ( I have a theory that Will wrote the masque first, to give the extra rehearsal time for the complicated dance steps and elaborate costumes, and then when the play itself was finished the masque didn't quite fit ) At the Publick this whole end section fizzles -- mainly, I think, because the Publick's Windsor is a town sadly without children. Anne Page's brother William is a great hulking adolescent rather than a cute little second grader. It's not the young actor's fault that we can't believe that William doesn't understand the sexual puns in the scene where Parson Hugh quizzes the boy on his Latin grammar. There is also a shortage of smallish boys to be mistaken for Sweet Anne Page in disguise, and elope with the cozened suitors.

Terry Hands' charming traditional production at the Royal National in London last year had nearly a dozen moppets in it, each more adorable than the last. The children interacted with the adults in a way that filled the town with rounded characters and complex relationships, as well as a childlike sense that fun is always waiting to happen. In the National's Herne The Hunter finale, the kids were crucial. They were filled with glee-- what a great kid occasion, to stay up late and wear scary costumes; to take part in elaborate prank masterminded by their schoolmaster Sir Hugh; to pinch and singe a helpless adult scapegoat, and get the approval of all the adults in the community for doing so. Hands' staging of the Faeries scene, with a procession of jack-o-lanterns on sticks, linked the rituals of modern Halloween with ancient pagan rites like that of Herne the Hunter, and sent the audience off into nostalgia for a time when tricks were treats. The punishment of poor fat Jack Falstaff for an ineffective bit of lechery is still uncomfortably cruel -- but structuring the knight's torment as a lesson for the community's children makes it seem poetic justice.