‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ at Chesapeake Theatre Company by Amanda Gunther

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What cannot be eschewed must be embraced; well, embrace it, baby because the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company is bringing the funk and they’re bringing it fierce! Mounting their midwinter’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor in traditional CSC style, they’ve bathed the Bard in bath of boogie and let it dry with a coat of groove. There’s something fabulously funky about setting comedy of romantic mishaps in the psychedelic 70’s, and Director Ian Gallanar keeps the boat a rockin’ all night love with the sounds of laughter and love as one of Shakespeare’s sillier comedies gets underway this season.

(l to r) Kate Michelsen Graham (Mistress Ford), Gregory Burgess (Sir John Falstaff), and Lesley Malin (Mistress Page) in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s production of 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.' Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.
(l to r) Kate Michelsen Graham (Mistress Ford), Gregory Burgess (Sir John Falstaff), and Lesley Malin (Mistress Page) in Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor.’ Photo by Teresa Castracane Photography.

When Director Ian Gallanar conceptualizes a vision he ensures that vision is achieved to its fullest potential; every nuance of that concept is worked into the design, the characterization, even into the speech patterns and accents of the characters. Gallanar creates an infiltrating framework that does more than just shift a setting or display a location, as so many conceptual adaptations of Shakespeare often do. Keeping the integrity and meaning behind the original text and story is juxtaposed, but perfectly balanced, against the trippy adventure that is the 1970’s. True to CSC style, Gallanar includes pre-show thematic music— an experience that really gets the audience pumped for the show they are about to enjoy. The intimate play ration of characters and scenarios to audience is still very present, another signature of a CSC production; a brilliant and well-crafted Shakespearean masterpiece that brings this romantic comedy right into your lap with a flare of the disco-era hot on its tail.

Boosting the groovy vibe of this funky show is Costume Designer Mindy Braden. Her tasteful threads are true to the era that they’re recreating, looking spectacularly vibrant while ringing realistic with those that lived through the days of checkered bellbottom flares and stripy blazers that show way too much chest hair. From white and black platform with a glossy shine so bright you can almost see your reflection in them to the large gold medallion bling around the men’s necks, Braden misses no detail and keeps everything looking classy while not too radical to detract from the characters. It’s the tacky pop colors of the lady’s dresses that really speak truth to the 70’s style, vivaciously patterned to keep even these mellowing housewives lively.

Musical Director Nick Delaney and Sound Designer Gee Blanston infuse a bit more of that 70’s sty le into the production with both live and tape recorded music (played on the illusion of LP.) The inclusion of music creates epic moments that are both poignant and extremely hysterical. Immediately coming to mind is Falstaff’s initial seduction of Mistress Ford sung by the actor and backed with the music of Marvin Gaye. Having the groove tunes to underscore the brief scene changes also keeps the production rolling at a decent pace; never lingering for too long as certain Shakespeare plays are often wont to do.

The most brilliant moment in the entire production comes from a clever and bold choice conceptualized by Gallanar. The infamous ‘love letter’ scene between Mistress Ford and Mistress Page has become that much more epic with the introduction of the cassette tape. Rather than leaving the text of the letters to the women, the delivery becomes Falstaff’s responsibility and the women’s reactions upon hearing his words of ardor live on cassette are priceless. This is by far the most clever interpretation of this scene to date and it adds a sense of classy humor to the production as a whole.
Character conceptualization big and small knows no bounds in this production, even the remotest of characters like Nym (Joe Grasso) and Pistol (Frank B. Moorman), two of Falstaff’s followers, find their niche as burly biker badasses and really personify the notion and motivation behind their performance. It’s the subtle but well articulated choices, like character voices— performed most notably in this show by Robert Shallow (Dave Gamble) and Master Slender (Vince Eisenson)— that really make the performance unique. Gamble channels a quirky Alan Alda style voice with his consistent jittery and forgetful mannerisms, indicative of his character’s age. Eisenson crafts a delicate slip of a Jersey-style accent into his thickheaded fashion of speaking and simply existing on the stage, radiating waves of his character’s utter simplicity to all that can see him.

If it’s not speech patterns its accents and both Sir Hugh Evans (Ben Harris) and Doctor Caius (Scott Alan Small) have a masterful handle on augmenting— to the point of nearing absurdity— the sounds that sculpt their characters. Harris plays the Spanish priest with a thick accent that makes his interactions in many scenes uproarious while Small presents an overbearing French accent that makes his character simply ridiculous and thoroughly enjoyable.

Treading away from the sounds of the characters both John Rugby (Sèamus Miller) and Mistress Quickly (Bess Kaye) rely on their bodies to craft the humor of their character’s existences. Kaye juggles flirty and quirky along with saucy and silly all in one well-presented rendition of the outspoken and slightly mischievous maid. Miller’s physicality lends itself to the yellow-bellied nature of Rugby, leaving him diving into closets in fear for his life in the simplest of overreactions.

Shakespeare had a thing for young lovers, this comedy is no exception with Mistress Ann Page (Lisa Davidson) and Fenton (Gerrad Alex Taylor.) The pair gets little stage time together and side-plots are constructed around their romance, but what they do they do exceptionally well. A hidden layer of 70’s homage comes to the surface in their relationship since neither parent agrees that Fenton is the man for their little girl. Taylor lays down the truth and speaks with a voice of the era, particularly when consulting his master plan to steal away Ann with Garter Innkeeper (Kecia A. Campbell).

The core of this comic plot revolves around husbands and wives and their jealousies. Two wives: Mistress Page (Lesley Malin) and Mistress Ford (Kate Michelsen Graham) have caught the eye of a certain grotesque knight who is intent to woo them and being the charming tittering women that they are, they are intent to screw him…into embarrassment and have a good laugh at his expense. Malin plays the older of the two characters with a slightly more sage approach to the jealousies of men while Graham plays the slightly more eager and inexperienced of the pair.

Together their plot to destroy Falstaff creates magnificent moments of comic delight to be enjoyed throughout the performance. It’s Malin’s intense overacting in the “foiled” scenes that really drive the comedy of the situation, melodramatically making her announcements and trying to keep a straight face while doing so. Graham gets a chance to showcase her temperament as well, particularly when it comes to confronting her green-eyed husband, Francis Ford (Michael P. Sullivan).

Sullivan is a ripe scene stealer when it comes to this production, his maniacal antics taking the cake when it comes to blustering about his household hunting for his wife’s lover. The brilliant dichotomy that Sullivan crafts between his character of Ford and his deceptive disguise as ‘Mister Brook’ is nothing short of genius; so boldly different and yet bound subtly together. As Brook Sullivan invents a 70’s style New York accent that keeps the character shifty and sly while as Ford he laments at the top of his lungs over the injustice of love and marriage. The wound-up and uptight complete opposite of George Page (Jeff Keogh) who is completely groovy, relaxed, and laid back, Sullivan steals everyone’s thunder when he goes for broke and terrorizes the laundry basket— a scene worth committing to memory for its unadulterated hilarity and its unapologetic hysteria. Sullivan’s consistency with this character makes his understanding of how to fully flesh out a Shakespearean character known and makes for a brilliant series of scenes in this production.

Rugby (left- Séamus Miller) is a servant who hilariously translates the halting English and mimics the eccentric habits of his boss, the French doctor, Caius (right- Scott Alan Small). Teresa Castracane Photography.
Rugby (left- Séamus Miller) is a servant who hilariously translates the halting English and mimics the eccentric habits of his boss, the French doctor, Caius (right- Scott Alan Small). Teresa Castracane Photography.

It all started, naturally, because of a man. Sir John Falstaff (Greg Burgess) the greasy knight who thinks himself Casanova. Burgess, turned pimp for the authenticity of the show, brings a new feel to the character of Falstaff for never before has the ridiculous character exuded such sexuality and had it be momentarily believable. There is something wicked and yet still wildly humorous about Burgess’ portrayal of this absurd character, but in his performance lies the truth of the commission of this play: Falstaff in love by request of Queen Elizabeth I. Burgess smooth command of sexuality and sensuality, and his ability to handle both in the face of the absurd, is what makes this production such a success. The audience is laughing at his prowess, the women are laughing at his charm; it’s a spectacular combination that really hones in on the humor crafted into the play.

So dust off those old platforms, dig out your bellbottoms and be sure to boogie on over to Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, their disco inferno of hysterical comedy will keep you warm all winter long!

Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.

The Merry Wives of Windsor plays through March 9, 2014 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company at The Howard County Center for the Arts’ Black Box Theatre— 8510 High Ridge Road in Ellicott City, MD. For tickets call the box office at (410) 313-8661, or purchase them online.