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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Wild and Upbeat Production of
The Merry Wives Of Windsor

Also see Richard's review of The Sound of Music

The Marin Shakespeare Company has updated William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, from Elizabethan England to the psychedelic backdrop of 1970s Marin County. This production is part of an outdoor Shakespeare Festival series presented under the summer stars at the Forest Meadows Amphitheatre on the Dominican College campus in San Rafael, California. This splendid farce is being presented through August 17th along with Moliere’s Don Juan and the Bard’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

I have seen Merry Wives many times before, and it has always been presented in the time of Queen Elizabeth I. However, recently the British updated the play to pre World War II England at the Swan in Stratford Upon Avon. The vain Falstaff can be played various ways, from a priming buffoon played completely over the top to a more egotistical self centered womanizer. The actor can be the biggest ham in Shakespeare history, huffing and bluffing, as some I have seen. Jack Powell, who plays the fat knight, is not as full-bodied or impish as prior actors I have seen in this showy role.

Merry Wives' plot centers around the inimitable Falstaff (Jack Powell) who tries to seduce a pair of saucy housewives, Mistress Page (Maria Shell) and Mistress Ford (Mary Knoll). However, the rapscallion gets more than he bargained for. There are subplots galore, as with all of Shakespeare’s comedies. We have Ann Page (Jennifer Field), the 17 year old daughter, and the dilemma of who she will marry and share her large inheritance. It could be the mooning nerd Slender (Avram Kosasky), the broken French spouting Doctor Caius (Rudy Guerrero) or her true love Fenton (Joel Bischoff). There is the officious Mistress Quickly (Phoebe Moyer), a bunch of Falstaff’s old pals from Henry IV and V who wander about the stage as bikers from Hell's Angels. The play dashes off in all directions during the two and one half hours with one intermission. We even have the famous last scene that takes place in a wood in Marin - instead of fairies, we have urchins and other folk who do a series of ABBA-like disco dances. Phoebe Moyer, an excellent dramatic actress, cuts loose on “Light My Fire.”

Falstaff is one of Shakespeare’s greatest characters. He was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I; the loveable rogue was so popular that the Virgin Queen reportedly commissioned Shakespeare to write a play in which the rascal falls in love. In the Marin production, Falstaff is seen in various yuppie costumes, including a wild red shiny sport coat that looks like a Las Vegas lounge lizard outfit. Jack Powell does a mean Saturday Night Fever dance to the Bee Gees during the forest scene. He is not particularly abhorrent and it is strange that the two wives would want to take their revenge on the man. He is one sharp dude.

The Marin Shakespeare Festival farce is part Marx Brothers, part camp, part Three Stooges and much slapstick. The music being played is strictly the disco beat of the ’70s, and there is even a little of Elaine Stritch’s “Ladies Who Lunch” played while Mistress Page is seated at a table sipping a glass of Napa-Sonoma wine. There are many crazy scenes, such as one in which Mistress Quickly and Falstaff discuss meeting the two wives while smoking a joint. The lines after those puffs are priceless. There are references to many Marin County pleasures such as brie cheese, Acapulco Gold, gurus, peacock feathers, hot tubs and specific towns in the county itself.

As good as Jack Powell is, it's Darren Bridgett who steals the show as the maniacally jealous husband Master Ford. As the imaginary cuckold husband, this actor bequeaths a fine bottled up hysteria that is a tour de force. His disguised encounters with Falstaff as a first class nerd with thick glasses are amazing. His pent up jealous feelings overflow when the fat man is not looking. Ford sputters and comically rages at the audience as he hears about his wife's alleged infidelities. He dreams up hilarious convulsions of jealousy during these scenes.

Phoebe Moyer is outstanding as the jive pothead Mistress Quickly. She makes the most of this portrait of a real cool cat. Rudy Guerrero is real camp with his preening, English smashing Dr. Caius who seems more interested in the men than the female characters. His French malapropisms and flamboyant swordplay are faultlessly timed. Mary Knoll and Marie Shell are wonderful as the vigorous and impish mistresses. Avram Kasasky as Slender is very good as a self effacing, non-wooing person full of nervous tics and strange movements. Jennifer Field and Joel Bischoff are pleasant as the young lovers. The night that we saw the production the fine actor Thomas Lynch who plays Justice Shallow was in the hospital. Director Robert S. Currier took over the role with script in hand. For a novice he did quite well - and his fast pace direction of the farce is right on the mark.

Bruce Lackovic’s set is basically bare with a curtain of giant hippie beads in the rear of the outside stage. The costumes by Maggie Whitaker are hippie, nerd and biker. Even the canned overture is fun as the opening bars of “YMCA” by the Village People are heard.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is currently playing with Don Juan in repertory. For tickets and for the dates of Merry Wives call 415-499-4488 or visit www.marinshakespeare.org. The farce runs thru August 17th .


Cheers - and be sure to Check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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