Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor isn’t one of the bard’s most tightly written plays — it amounts to little more than extended horseplay — and could even be considered a little mean-spirited in its depiction of middle-class mores, Welsh incomprehensibility and French pomposity. But in the able hands of Seattle Shakespeare Company and director Terry Edward Moore, the almost nonstop sight gags, malapropisms and puns keep both the cast and the audience on their toes for more than three frolicking hours.
The physical and verbal jokes fly at such lightning speed, this is one case where reading the play in advance, or at least being familiar with the plot, can be a great help.
The story line sounds simpler than it plays on stage. Sir John Falstaff, anachronistically plopped into the Elizabethan age from the medieval era of the Henry IV plays, has fallen on hard times. In an effort to refill his personal coffers, he simultaneously woos two Windsor wives — the Mistresses Page and Ford — hoping to gain access to their husband’s finances. The women have no patience with the fat and “greasy” Falstaff but make great merriment at his expense, luring him into compromising situations and a Walpurgisnacht-like frenzy where Falstaff is humiliated before the entire community.
There are the usual subplots that you expect from any Shakespearean play and a supporting cast of ridiculous characters like a French doctor, a Welsh parson and a tongue-tied young suitor. There’s even a cameo appearance by a silent Queen Elizabeth (the first, of course) that Moore has inserted into the climactic scene. But these are mere diversions from the main event.
By one account, Shakespeare wrote Merry Wives in two and a half weeks, although it’s hard to believe even he could have managed so much verbal dexterity in such a short time. Regardless of how long it took to write, Merry Wives provides not just a delightful evening of theater but also, as the only Shakespearean play placed exclusively in the time that the playwright lived, a picture window into that Elizabethan world. The characters are largely suburbanites living in a society that found the idea of a wife cheating on her husband hilarious, and the play overflows with references to cuckoos, cuckolds and horns or horned animals. The sight of Falstaff, for instance, sporting deer’s antlers would probably have brought the house down in Shakespeare’s time and even the words “buck basket,” wherein Falstaff hides at one point, would most likely have provoked hoots.
It’s a testament to Shakespeare’s verbal skill — and Moore’s gift for physical comedy — that a contemporary audience can respond so easily to the silly humor of Merry Wives. When the suitor confuses the words “resolute” with “dissolute” in declaring his love for Mistress Page’s daughter, it’s as funny today as it was 400 years ago. When the French doctor pronounces “third” as “turd,” he’s greeted with the same groans today as he was no doubt in Shakespeare’s time.
It should come as no surprise to anyone who has seen a Seattle Shakespeare Company performance that the troupe consistently finds actors who can make sense of Shakespeare’s language and bring real humanity to his characters. The company wisely allows the actors to speak largely in American accents, not English, which avoids the straining that so often accompanies the efforts of those on this side of the pond.
There are a few missteps in casting — David Dorrian as the Welsh parson and Gavin Cummins as the French doctor overact, with incomprehensible accents — but overall the actors are well-suited to their roles. John Patrick Lowrie is an appropriately blustery Falstaff who, with his deep and resonant voice, suggests the operatic Falstaff. And Therese Diekhans is deliciously saucy as the matchmaking Mistress Quickly. Lowrie and Diekhans have such chemistry in their scenes together you wonder why Falstaff doesn’t figure out a financing scheme that allows him to run away with her. Christopher Hopkins-Ward’s Slender (yes, he is) is so gawky as he woos the Page daughter, you want to spirit him away to a planet populated entirely by men.
But the real standout is Leslie Law as Mistress Page. Though her face looks barely older than that of the young woman who plays her daughter, Law’s demeanor, facial expressions and body language are those of a confident, jocular middle-aged woman, and she steals every scene she’s in. Even if there were no other pleasures in this Merry Wives of Windsor — and there are plenty — Law alone is worth the price of admission.
The staging is up to the Company’s usual high standards and makes excellent use of the tiny Seattle Center theater, as do the minimal sets and props. Merry Wives may not rank as a Shakespearean masterpiece, but it has its share of pleasures and on opening night everyone — cast and audience — appeared to have a rollicking good time.
If you go: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Seattle Shakespeare Company, through May 15 at Seattle Center House Theatre, 305 Harrison St. Tickets cost $20-$40 and are available at the box office, by phone (206-733-8222) or online.