Cape Fear Shakespeare on the Green (CFSOG), Wilmington’s annual Shakespeare in the Park summer experience, offers “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater through June. Aside from being one of the best productions CFSOG has put on in years, it’s a free experience for folks to enjoy local theatre in the surroundings of a natural park, perhaps with a picnic and the company of family and friends.
The quiet world of Windsor is shaken up by the exploits of Sir John Falstaff (Zeb Mims), the lecherous, drunken knight. Perhaps the easiest way to explain Falstaff is to compare him to “The Big Lebowski’s” Dude—at least the Dude would aspire to be him if he could aspire to anything. Falstaff’s latest scheme involves trying to seduce married women: Alice Ford (Bailey Watkins) and Margaret Page (Tamica Katzman). Now the thing with Falstaff is, he is the gods’ gift to women—but only in his own mind and only after he’s had enough to drink to have the courage and denial to move forward. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page are not as flattered by his advances as he expected them to be and they devise a plot to humiliate the knight.
Meanwhile, Mistress Page’s household is also busy trying to negotiate the labyrinth of getting her daughter Anne (Georgia Cole) engaged to be married. As a young lady with a sizable dowry—and beauty to match—there are several contenders. Anne has her heart set on young Fenton (Aidan Malone), who doesn’t seem to have much going for him other than his ability to moon over her like a lovesick puppy. Her mother wants her to marry Dr. Caius (Murphy Turner), a French doctor who has settled in the neighborhood and gives the appearance of financial stability. Turner’s portrayal of Dr. Caius is an impassioned and terrifying experience that looks like an unholy alliance between John Leguizamo and John Cleese. It’s funny. It’s also raving mad.
Please, don’t marry that poor unsuspecting girl to a mad man. Her father (also played by Murphy Turner) has been persuaded by the local council of busy-body older men, headed by Robert Shallow (Caylan McKay), to give Anne to Shallow’s cousin Slender (Aidan Van Nynatten)—a socially awkward and irritating little slug. But the guys like him, so of course their council is more important than his wife’s or his daughter’s, right?
As the household struggles with sorting out this major step in all their lives, Page’s friend Francis Ford (Jackson Cole) gives into his irrational jealousy and decides to visit Falstaff in disguise to see if the knight can help him determine if his wife is faithful to him.
Now Jackson is handsome, charismatic and an attentive husband—but if he would just behave like a reasonable person where his wife is concerned, he would have nothing to worry about. Instead, he is determined to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. As he leads the men of the neighborhood on absurd and embarrassing searches of his house, hoping to catch his wife in an assignation with Falstaff, one has to wonder what exactly is wrong with this man? When you have Damian Lewis, why would you hook up with James Lipton?
Shakespeare wrote “Merry Wives” in response to Queen Elizabeth’s request for something with her favorite character, Sir John Falstaff. Indeed, much of the show does hang on him. I adore Falstaff as a theatrical character, but as a friend to hang out with? Not so much. So the portrayal of Falstaff can be completely over the top, or it can be completely real—as in a drunk, self-obsessed man with very little comprehension of how the world sees him. We all know that guy—the one who, if he put half as much effort in to earning a living as he did scheming to not have to work, would be unbelievably successful. Mims gives us the latter. Yes, his Falstaff is funny, but he plays him more toward his choices and motivation over laughs, and it makes for a better performance.
But the show was written for a female monarch; thus it is the merry wives of Windsor who get the upper hand and are the real heroines of the story. Katzmann and Watkins are delightful. They are both beautiful (it is not hard to believe that Jackson’s Ford is driven mad with love for her). They’re smart, resourceful, and they seem to enjoy a good laugh at the expense of the men in their lives (both welcome and not). How appropriate for a queen beset on all sides by men convinced she needs their guidance and tutelage. Really if these two were not convincing, the show would fall apart—no matter how funny Falstaff could be.
The Bard wrote some really wonderful roles for the assembled company. Clearly, the show is fun for all, from start to finish. Caylan McKay’s aged Robert Shallow steals all the laughs onstage with his creaky old man’s voice and a gait straight from the head of the bank in “Mary Poppins”; he nails both physical comedy and delivery.
And how can you not love Mistress Quickly? As a character type, she has survived down the ages: riding a line of illegal activity with flexible morals, she is a survivor with only one loyalty. Quincey Rife plays a younger, sexier version than I am used to seeing, but her charm and charisma shine at every turn to make the career in front of her believable.
However, my favorite of the ensemble was the host of the Garter Inn (Henry Fox). Think of a bartender who really should be the front man in a jam band. He has a heart of gold and does the right thing, but he hates every minute of it. Why do people fight and make trouble when we could all just get along? Part of it is that he really does have some of the best lines in his variety of peace-making speeches and one can’t help but love him for hi aid to our young lovers. (His help is far more effective than the Friar’s in “Romeo and Juliet”).
For all the fun “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is, I am surprised it is not better known. In many ways, it is what Kathryn Hepburn screwball comedy films always aspired to be. The production delivers on that promise. It is a night of great fun, laughs and a lot of rejoicing. It’s a truly magical evening in the park with the Bard and this band of players.