A fast-paced farce fit for the #metoo movement
In Elizabethan times, wives in the royal town of Windsor had plenty of reasons to be merry. They enjoyed comfortable homes, servants, social standing and a strong, powerful woman on the throne. But they still had to endure men of higher class attempting to compromise their favors and fortunes.
In "The Merry Wives of Windsor," playing at Shakespeare & Company's outdoor Roman Garden Theatre, the Bard shows these quick-witted women quite capable of taking care of themselves, as they rebuff the attentions of Sir John Falstaff, played by Nigel Gore as a bold buffoon with a super-inflated ego who deems himself master of seduction and deceit.
Ostensibly a comic romp, "Merry Wives" has gained deeper meaning in today's sociological climate. It's one of the most produced Shakespeare plays this season, said to Director Kevin G. Coleman in a recent interview alongside cast members Jennie M. Jadow and Cloteal L. Horne.
A company founder who leads the education program, Coleman — a familiar comic figure onstage — is now directing his first mainstage production in almost 10 years. It's set in the Elizabethan era — "with a twist," he teased.
Located west of London, the town of Windsor has deep royal connections. Windsor Castle, favored getaway of Queen Elizabeth I and 38 other monarchs, was built by William the Conqueror near royal hunting grounds.
Mistresses Ford (Jadow) and Page (Chesser) are the merry wives of the title.
"Mistress Page and I are in this together," Jadow said. "Because of our friendship and sense of connectedness, we decide we have the smarts and resources to take on Falstaff and show him who's actually boss."
Her partner-in-crime Chesser, "has no fear on stage, she's willing to try anything and everything," said Jadow, a veteran of the company's Rose Theatre romps.
Time and again at Shakespeare & Company, the pair have shown themselves to be consummate comediennes.
"I would include Mistress Quickly in the women driving this play," Jadow said, "almost more than the wives because she is behind getting everybody where they need to be."
As a housekeeper who can move between worlds, Quickly (Horne) serves as a go-between for the plan to outwit Falstaff, using her position for leverage.
"She's a matchmaker and pleasure enthusiast who enjoys and supports love," Horne said. "She finds herself in problems because she over commits, but that's where the comedy comes from.
"Although she is not a wife, she adds a greater dimension to women's roles in general — that they are just as mischievous, but still can be honorable," Horne explained. "They hold that duality, and in my experience that feels radical. ... She has all the language about the beauty of the town of Windsor and making sure that you restore that. She has a heart for people. And I think that's nobility."
Shakespeare is notorious for telling a big story, Coleman said. Looking at both sides of the social spectrum "provides a more complete picture."
Not only a writer, he explained, Shakespeare spent most of his life on the stage, yet found time to write plays and sonnets that encompass both drama and poetry.
"His use of language and comic sensibility comes from being an actor," Coleman said. "He knows what works theatrically.
"In 'Merry Wives' he's written a fast-paced farce just for the pleasure of these characters interacting with each other."
Reputed to be a favorite character of the Queen, Falstaff made his first appearance in the Henry play cycle.
"I think he's ridiculous to fathom he has a hope of any kind of relationship," Jadow said. "The absurdity is what allows us to lead him down this merry path. He's a delightful foil to monkey with in the play."
His delusions of grandeur make his comedown all the more delicious, she added.
Falstaff is not the only character receiving his comeuppance. With an unreasonably jealous husband, the ruse "offers the perfect opportunity [for Mistress Ford] to bring that behavior into the sunshine," Jadow said.
Seeing a man of authority he can use or abuse brought down by women historically in a position of subservience "is catharsis in this day and time," Horne said. "It's done with love and care, but the lesson still emerges."
At the time, "it was comical for the women to step forward and take this kind of agency," she said. Seen afresh through a modern lens, though, "that feels current."
"This is the #metoo movement 400 years ago," said Coleman. "Well done, Shakespeare!"
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