Y’all ready for some Shakespeare?
Bard on the Beach’s presentation of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a joyous exhibit of some of the city’s finest actors jesting to comedic gold, and a rollicking good time.
Set in Windsor, Ontario in 1968, the farcical comedy follows the fat, pompous, and oblivious Falstaff (Elizabeth I’s favourite character) as he tries to woo two married women at the same time. When Mistress Ford and Mistress Page discover the fool has written them identical love letters, they set upon getting their revenge together in a set of three pranks involving increasingly large members of the cast. As a subplot, Mistress Page’s daughter, Anne Page, is wooed by three suitors, only one of whom she truly loves. Cue mistaken identities, lovable rogues, and enough double entendres to wobble your trifle.
We start the romp in The Garter Inn, a ramshackle pub replete with dartboard, mounted deer heads, rickety furniture, and crickety locals. In short, it’s skillfully designed by Pam Johnson to look like every small town pub in Canada. There’s even an Open Mic Night sign.
In director Johnna Wright’s interpretation of the play, music is both the lynchpin and the highlight of the show – due to both Wright’s impeccable choice of 60’s country hits which intersperse the scenes and an offensively multitalented cast.
The two wives start the show – and Open Mic – with These Boots Are Made For Walking, foreshadowing one of the key scenes later in the play that will use the same song. Master Ford (Scott Bellis) uses Stand By Your Man to earn the forgiveness from his wife after wrongful bouts of jealousy – a touch that adds a modern, egalitarian sensibility to an otherwise patriarchal script. Anton Lipovetsky’s guitar solo in Act 5 is jaw-droppingly good and receives whoops and screams from the crowd. Who knew a thespian could shred like that?
Much recommends the cast. There’s a distinct type of pleasure when watching a play and knowing you are in excellent hands: that the acting is not only thorough, but enjoyed by those viewed on stage. It’s felt here.
Scott Bellis’ pretentious beatnik disguise is hilarious, as is Dawn Petten’s awkward portrayal of the aptly named Simple. Andrew Chown clowns his way through the character of Dr. Ciaus with aplomb and grace, while Ben Elliot’s foolish, legs-akimbo Slender is as funny as he is distasteful. Against the physical comedy and extreme characterizations from so many of the cast, Ashley Wright’s straight-faced portrayal of poor Falstaff shines. Such contrast makes this roguish character all the more beloved, and feels merciful: we laugh at everyone on stage, not just the imbecile who faces drownings, beatings, and public humiliations for his vain romantic attempts.
In the program notes, Wright discusses the importance of community in the play. She succeeded: it has it in spades, from the joyful interactions between performers to the main stage theatre feeling like a cozy backwater room from the moment you enter. You’ll leave having cackled louder than if you’d spent the evening in your own favourite haunt.
The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare. Directed by Johnna Wright. A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival production. On stage the BMO Mainstage at Vanier Park until September 24. Visit https://bardonthebeach.org for tickets and information.