CEDAR CITY — There’s a moment, late in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where Peter Simple stands on stage with his arms wrapped around a pillar just watching and enjoying the scene before him. When all is done, the players filter offstage—but he’s stuck. Without realizing, he’s caught himself in the Chinese finger trap he brought onstage. There he is, wrapped in that pillared embrace. That’s what I hope happens to me every time I enter the theatre. I want to get lost in this new world. I want to fall in love with the characters. Ultimately, I want to end up somewhere surprising without having realized I where exactly I was headed.
Most critics would name The Merry Wives of Windsor as one of Shakespeare’s weaker plays. I am tempted to agree. The audience is introduced to Sir John Falstaff, short on money, but bent on courting two wealthy women to overcome the short change in his pocket. He decides to send them identical love letters, and when the women he would woo—Mistress Page and Mistress Ford—discover his intentions, they decide to play this aging, overweight and indecent suitor a fool. There are a number of other small side stories throughout the play, but as a whole, the plot is incredibly predictable, and almost mechanical.
As for this production, overall, it was fairly delightful. I feel as though the script provides just a rough sketch of the show, and it was up to the actors, director, and designers to give it some meat and make it worthwhile. This is a script that would be very easy to do poorly. Thank goodness you can expect a lot more from the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
Jacqueline Antaramian and Melinda Pfundstein play the two merry wives, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. Pfundstein and is a cunning delight as she plots with Ford to trick and abuse Sir John Falstaff. When Mistress Ford’s husband approaches the home and Sir John Falstaff needs escape, Antaramian and Pfundstein express such a giddy, almost devious, air as their servants cart Sir John in a basket past Ford’s nose and on to the Thames.
Roderick Peeples carries his role of Falstaff as one might wear a familiar hat. He is completely at home in the character and maintains a natural camaraderie with the audience. He’s funny, yes. I smiled in those fleeting scenes of escape from Mistress Ford’s chamber, as well as his weighty entrance rolling downstage in nothing but undergarments. There is mastery there and it is very fun to watch. On occasion, however, this familiarity in performance seems to lack a sense of immediacy. When those unexpected moments happen, as they do in any live performance, I’m not sure I felt Peeple’s choices were informed by the moment, but instead by the rehearsal room.
It’s the antics of John G. Preston as Francis Ford that truly kept me on my toes till the play was done. His transformation into the bumbling Master Brook, a simple disguise used to root out Falstaff’s intentions, was the highlight of the evening. His frustrated quirks and jerks keep the audience laughing throughout. There might be a tendency to allow those moments to grow through the extended run, but I think the comedy lies in his control and precision.
Director Peter Amster’s work on this production is to be commended. While the script leaves nearly nothing to be unexpected, Amster has created a show that surprises and delights with the subtle textures in design and performance.
Designers Robert Mark Morgan (set), Jennifer Caprio (costumes), Krissa Lent (hair and make-up), Barry G. Funderburg (composer/sound) and Donna Ruzika (lights) beautifully built the world of this play and only strengthened what the actors and director brought to the stage. From Doctor Caius’s comical armoir with hidden panels to the nearly nude entrance of Falstaff, I found myself delighted by the design and able to invest myself all that more fully to this production despite any shortcomings in the script.
I remember seeing two productions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance back in the summer of 2001. One of them was an incredibly painful $7 to spend. The second was produced here at the Festival in Cedar City and I was glad to pay my $30 for the ticket. Some scripts—such as The Pirates of Penzance and The Merry Wives of Windsor—are just very easy to do poorly. Thankfully, with this production, you can trust the team at Utah Shakespeare Festival.