This summer, Delaware Shakespeare hasn’t landed us in Elsinore with a troubled prince’s mother or Scotland with Macbeth’s blood-soaked lady. We’re in the comic melee of The Merry Wives of Windsor (the only play the Bard set in his own era) with two sharp gals and a doltish knight.
If anything is home to Britain’s ruling family, it’s Windsor Castle, the 11th-century Norman fortress that’s been a royal residence for 900 years. Today, the Queen’s weekend getaway is virtually a part of greater London. But in the 1500s, Windsor was in the countryside, where Shakespeare made mischief and mayhem the order of the day.
Not the nobles
Though the town is notable for nobles—it was also Elizabeth I’s royal retreat—this play deals not with aristocrats but with the English middle and merchant classes. Two spunky Windsor women, clever Mistress Ford (Amy Frear) and outspoken Mistress Page (Brett Ashley Robinson), are wooed by the disreputable Sir John Falstaff (a well-cast Bradley Mott). A good-natured and indomitable English Bacchus (Orson Welles considered him the greatest character in the canon), Falstaff is short of ready cash, and he decides to acquire it by seducing these wealthy women.
Of course, the “merry wives” are pals—it’s a small town—and they conspire successfully to upend the “fat knight’s” devious and misogynistic schemes. Their husbands, the overly jealous Master Ford (Gregory Isaac) and the sanguine Master Page (Newton Buchanan), undertake deceptions of their own. Windsor is rife with rivalries and gamesmanship, and everyone’s schemes are abetted by the busybody Mistress Quickly (Amanda Robinson). As fun as these antics might be, the plot of Merry Wives (labyrinthine even for Shakespeare) can be hard to follow.
Queen Elizabeth I loved Falstaff (he appears in three works and could always be counted on to fill the house) and ostensibly wanted to “see him in love.” It’s posited that Shakespeare wrote this 1590s work at her behest, and though the story may be apocryphal, it certainly feels true. The playwright’s gears and devices, usually so skillfully interwoven, are here all too apparent. Merry Wives has the requisite intricacies and overlapping subplots—Shakespearean comic specialties—along with forest fairies in a midsummer night’s nightmare. But here this giddy array peoples what seems a purpose-built vehicle created to curry the favor of the court.
In addition, as the seat of Elizabethan diplomacy, Windsor was overrun by international visitors. Pandering to British audiences, Shakespeare paints these foreigners broadly, laden with thick accents. The Welsh priest (Claris Park) is a garrulous cheese-eater; the French doctor (David Pica) is flighty and easily addled; and the Germans are liars and thieves who steal all the beer. Handling the play’s excessive and stereotypical nationalism is an additional interpretive challenge.
Barrymore winner Krista Apple (last summer’s DelShakes Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing) has staged the work in a sitcom style that often seems to oddly flatten the action, though it’s perfect in cases like Robinson’s “poolside” scene. Apple directs an energetic and charming cast that has its ups and downs. At times the pace flagged, perhaps due in part to the heat that also created intermittent sound-system problems. A more temperate night might amplify the focus for both performers and audience.
This one-dimensional approach is tailored to skirt the play’s thornier issues—lust, jealousy, deception, and jingoistic national pride. In Merry Wives there are hidden rich nuggets (Falstaff’s final speech of humbled acceptance, for instance) that can only be mined by dipping into the wells of character (admittedly shallow) that the Bard filled more fully and poetically in other plays.
Leigh Ivory Clark Paradise dresses the cast in a mix of contemporary clothing with witty period touches. The action is punctuated by a solo string bass (Amber Kowal) and Michael Hahn’s oddly interspersed original music—perhaps another audio problem. Lance Kniskern sets the action among cleverly awry house frames festooned with laundry lines (a setup for some of the later comic action) interspersed with doorways leading into the trees.
We may think Shakespeare en plein air is a clever modern innovation. But Elizabethan theaters were open to the elements, and outdoor performance has been a staple in England and America since the 1800s. The Merry Wives of Windsor was one of the first Shakespeare plays presented out-of-doors in Britain, and the English manor-house setting of Rockwood Park—with its Victorian mansion anchoring gardens and towering groves—is wholly in that tradition. In spite of the play’s challenges, an evening passed at DelShakes with friends and the Bard (even in an atypical work like this) is always a summer pleasure. We’re not the first to see the credulous Falstaff and those “merry wives” romping through the trees, and we certainly won’t be the last.
What, When, Where
The Merry Wives of Windsor, by William Shakespeare, directed by Krista Apple. Through July 28 at Delaware Shakespeare Summer Festival at Rockwood Park, 4651 Washington Street Extension, Wilmington, DE. (302) 468-4890 or delshakes.org.
Park grounds are wheelchair-accessible, but the walk to the performance area is over uneven terrain. There is a limited amount of seating available for patrons with special needs. Contact Delaware Shakespeare for more info. Rockwood Park is located directly off I-95, but Marsh Road ramps are closed; check the theater’s website for travel updates.