Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

The Merry Wives of Windsor
Two River Theater
Review by Cameron Kelsall


Jason O'Connell, Nicole Lewis, and
Zuzanna Szadkowski

Photo by T. Charles Erickson
I go through refractory periods with Shakespeare. Some seasons it feels like I spend more time with Macbeth than with my own mother, and that is usually when I need a break from the Bard. (I imagine many of us who see a high volume of theater feel this way from time to time.) Yet I have lately found myself craving Will's words, stemming largely from seeing Eric Tucker's spectacularly inventive production of Hamlet at Princeton's McCarter Theatre a few weeks ago. Well-performed Shakespeare always leaves me wanting more. So, it is just my luck that Tucker has conceived and directed a new adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor for Red Bank's Two River Theater.

Or so I thought. Tucker is the founder of Bedlam Theater, whose mission is to reduce the theatrical experience to its most essential. Bedlam's productions often feature small casts and streamlined texts, and are performed in theatrical spaces that foster a sense of erasure between the audience and the stage. Although this Merry Wives is not a Bedlam undertaking per se, Tucker has brought some of the stylistic hallmarks of his company to it: The cast includes three actors playing more than twenty roles, and the play has been pared down to two intermissionless hours. However, unlike Bedlam's brilliant Hamlet (or their revelatory production of Shaw's Saint Joan), The Merry Wives of Windsor struggles mightily to strike a consistent chord.

The events of the play have been transported from 16th century Windsor Castle to a cheap roadside motel in an anonymous American city (Lee Savage is responsible for the impressive set, replete with knotty pine, faded floral bedspreads, and chintzy lampshades). Sir John Falstaff (Jason O'Connell) is cast as a small-time hustler, swilling Milwaukee's Best and going to outrageous lengths to satiate a seemingly limitless sexual appetite. His potential conquests, Mistress Ford (Nicole Lewis) and Mistress Page (Zuzanna Szadkowski), are presented as typical suburban housewives; their plot to catch Sir John in his own web of mischief could very well occur between trips to the grocery store and dropping the kids at soccer practice. Their husbands (whom Lewis and Szadkowski also play) look and sound like two guys you might find at the end of the bar at the Elks lodge.

The change in setting allows for a disorienting effect that should work better than it does. Often, Falstaff is presented as a jolly wastrel, a man who may love food, drink and women too much, but who is essentially harmless (think of Verdi's buffo characterization from his 1893 operatic adaptation). Yet the text paints a darker portrait of a man whose primary concern is with his own appetites, who cares little for the collateral damage of his actions so long as there is money in his purse and a woman on his lap. Tucker runs with this characterization, but ends up taking matters a bit too far. Falstaff is not meant to be benignly charming, but without some modicum of charm, the entire play sputters. O'Connell is a game performer, but his Falstaff feels too much like a sleazy pimp in a sordid television movie.

It doesn't help that Tucker's production trades in bawdy innuendo for overt lasciviousness and cheap bathroom gags. The play includes scenes of graphically simulated oral and anal sex, cunnilingus and masturbation, and more than one character is either seen or heard evacuating his bowels over the course of the evening. These insertions are, of course, meant to support the interpretation of Falstaff as a seedy lothario, and to suggest that his world exists in the underbelly of society. But what might have felt daring or original quickly begins to feel gratuitous. I don't consider myself a prude, but by the second poop episode of the night, I felt myself reaching for an imaginary strand of pearls.

Lewis—a veteran of Bedlam's long-running production of Sense and Sensibility—manages to escape the evening relatively unscathed. Her Mistress Ford is headstrong and fully realized, a woman determined to defend her honor against Sir John's attack. She also wrings much humor out of Mistress Quickly, the women's messenger, styled here with a thick Spanish accent. Szadkowski is regrettably stiff throughout, doing little to signal changes in character either through voice modulation or physical modifications. She is most successful as Master Ford, who fears that Falstaff has cuckolded him. Her staccato delivery manages to communicate that character's inner torment, occasionally giving way to justified torrents of anger and self-pity.

A major flaw of the production is Tucker's decision not to omit the play's secondary marriage plot, in which Mistress Page's daughter Anne is shepherded toward marrying the gentleman Slender, although she truly loves the aristocratic but penniless Fenton. In this adaptation, the subplot is dead weight, distracting the audience from what should be the real meat of the evening (the Ford/Page/Falstaff triangle). Excising it would have lost nothing but a welcome twenty minutes from the running time. I also left dismayed that Tucker and O'Connell settled on a portrayal of Hugh Evans, the town parson, that verges on a limp-wristed, lisping queer stereotype, for no supported reason.

As it turns out, I am currently in the midst of an unplanned Shakespeare marathon; over the course of the next week, I am also seeing productions of A Midsummer Night's Dream and Coriolanus. Let's hope that those two productions can wash out the sour taste left by this decidedly un-merry Merry Wives, and keep me from wanting to put Shakespeare back on the shelf for a while.

The Merry Wives of Windsor continues at Two River Theater's Marion Huber Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, NJ through Sunday, March 26, 2017. Tickets ($20-70) can be purchased online at www.tworivertheater.org or by calling 732-345-1400.


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