(Mini Reviews to Die For)
by Marjorie Shapiro
Stan and I decided to catch up on Shakespeare with The Merry Wives of Windsor at the Pearl Theater. The Pearl is probably the most desperately sincere and well-meaning theater group in all of NYC. Their productions have a sort of reverent feel to them, as if the playwright were sitting 3rd row center taking notes. This sometimes seems to put a restraint on imagination in an attempt at authenticity. The audience can count on competent-to-very-good performances, clearly spoken lines, very limited, but adequate staging, costumes appropriate to the time and place of the play and no undo surprises to jar the nerves. In return the Pearl has a very enthusiastic and supportive following of subscribers who don't want their classics mucked up. Since this is happening in NYC, you end up with high end regional theater or as Stan says "very good summer stock without the mosquitoes."
Their new production of The Merry Wives of Windsor fits into the Pearl perfectly. Dan Daily, as Falstaff, is suitably a buffoon. Over impressed with his abilities as a ladies’ man, he manages quite easily to make a jackass of himself. He uses a lot of physical humor which the audience found hilarious. My congratulations go to Ray Virta for his portrayal of Ford, the confused and suspicious husband of Mistress Ford, one of Falstaff's flirtations. He has a true comic gift, plus he added a touch of romance to his relationship with his wife, which is unusual in any of Shakespeare's plays. Susan Pourfar played Anne Page with a particularly clear purpose and was very funny in the process. She seemed to enjoy this part after her somber performance as the wife in the company's prior production of John Gabriel Borkman. Hopefully we will see her in more comedies. I also particularly enjoyed the work of Dominic Cuskern as a crazy sword-wielding French Doctor and Christopher Moore as Sir Hugh Evans, a Welsh parson, who for a time was his target.
All the actors seemed to be having a good time, as did most of the devoted audience. So, if you want to see a no-frills, peppy production of Merry Wives in Elizabethan costume, exactly as was written by Shakespeare, clearly spoken by competent actors in a very intimate, comfortable and caring setting I recommend the Pearl Theater's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor!
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Having the good fortune of living in NYC where not one, but two Elizabethan plays are being produced within walking distance of our apartment, Stan and I went to see Ben Johnson's The Alchemist on Saturday afternoon.
The Classic Stage Company takes exactly the opposite approach to the staging the classics as does The Pearl, so it was fun to see these two plays on the same weekend. Philosophically, it appears that the CSC wants to bring out the similarities between early 17th century England and early 21st century USA. With The Alchemist they have found the perfect play. The characters in this very funny production are all looking for the quick buck, easy magic to solve the unsolvable, and generally anything that will feed into their insatiable fantasies. And of course, there are the con artists to take advantage of the gullible. Does this sound familiar? Well, apparently it was familiar in the 17th century as well.
This production is definitely not for traditionalists. It is in the Joanne Akalitis school of direction, although we have Barry Edelstein directing. He has pulled out the motorcycle outfit, the stereo systems and a great flashing Christmas light costume worn by Johann Carlo in her "Queen of Fairy" con. There are chemical reactions of all types and colors in attempts to turn metal to gold, and explosions with lots of smoke. Since we're dealing with a satirical comedy here and not a Shakespearean tragedy, somehow it seems all in good fun.
The Alchemist is about a trio of con artists who decide to make easy cash by turning base metal into gold. Face, a servant whose master has left town to avoid the plague, has turned the house into their "criminal headquarters.” The criminals quickly come up with clients for 5 different cons, each suited to the customer’s needs. And, as expected, they are all willing to give over huge amounts of money for anticipated future rewards.
Although I'm not a big fan of using modern equipment in 17th century drama, somehow The Alchemist lends itself to update. I guess the basic greed in humans has not changed all that much over the last 400 years. Certainly, with all the psychic fads, get rich quick schemes and other promises of quick fixes for difficult situations, I'm quite sure a clever alchemist could con many of us very easily even today.
Naturally, the language is rich in this play and doesn't lend itself quite as easily to understanding as a Seinfeld episode on a similar subject, however, that's what the theater is all about. We work a little harder to get a much higher level of reward.
The actors give it their all. Jeremy Shamos is continuously changing his costumes as well as character. Dan Castillaneta is terrific as the Alchemist and Johann Carlo is very funny as the tough, scheming 'working woman' of the con. All their pathetic clients come one at a time for their individual scalping. I particularly enjoyed the performances of Michael Showalter as a low clerk, Umit Celebi as Tribulation Wholesome as a pastor and Lee Sellars as Sir Epicure Mammon, a Knight.
Let's face it. Maybe this would be better in a more traditional style and maybe we should be annoyed with the liberties taken with text and production. However, beggars can't be choosers. When was the last production of The Alchemist in NYC and when will the next one appear? I say thank you to the CSC for presenting this work. I suggest you not wait for perfection, but try to relax and have fun.
Once again... Please, Please, Please if you have the time and money, go to see Fuddy Meers. I haven't met a person who doesn't enjoy this show.