Sir John Falstaff is arguably William Shakespeare’s greatest comic character. The ribald, oversized skirt chaser appears in three of the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon’s plays, including Henry IV, Part 1 and Part 2. According to Director’s Notes in the program, Queen Elizabeth enjoyed this roguish character so much that Her Majesty commanded the playwright to write another comedy featuring Falstaff. That third Falstaffian play, The Merry Wives of Windsor, is now the summer season opener of Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum at Topanga Canyon.
However, this version is the Bard with (literally) a twist: WGTB Artistic Director Ellen Geer has transported the Elizabethan-era, Windsor, England-set play to small town USA in Connecticut, during the1950s. Not only that, but a score of period music has been interjected into the madcap merriment of this modern dress revival, with songs from musicals such as My Fair Lady, South Pacific and Bye Bye Birdie, plus rock ‘’n’ roll hits such as “Rock Around the Clock.”
The main thrust of the bawdy comedy is that Falstaff (played by the well-padded Jeff Wiesen, a 17-season veteran of WGTB) lustily pursues two married women, Mrs. Ford (Emily Bridges) and Mrs. Page (Willow Geer). In addition to libidinal desire, the sly Falstaff is also conniving to get at the purses of their well-to-do hubbies, Ford (Jonathan Blandino, who has a droll double role) and Page (Bill Haller). Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page conspire to turn the tables on the Rabelaisian, glutinous Falstaff, who – despite his girth and lack of wealth, fancies himself to be quite the irresistible ladies’ man.
(Both thesps Emily Bridges and Willow Geer were born into show biz royalty – Emily’s grandfather, Lloyd, starred in the TV series Sea Hunt and movies like High Noon; her father Beau, who attended Merry’s premiere, co-starred with his brother, Jeff “The Dude” Bridges, in 1989’s The Fabulous Baker Boys. Willow’s grandfather was WGTB’s namesake, Will Geer, of Salt of the Earth and The Waltons fame. Her son, Julius Geer-Polin, is the newest member of the Geer dynasty to tread the boards, and alternates in the role of the lad William Page in Merry.)
Merry has a subplot wherein the youthful, single Anne Page (Alexandra Kunin) is also being pursued by a trio of suitors. Slender (Ethan Haslam) seems more enamored by the dowry he imagines marrying Anne will fetch him than by his intended herself. Dr. Caius, portrayed with a faux French accent by Cavin Mohrhardt, is also hot on Anne’s trail. But it is Fenton (Charles Lin) who woos Anne because he has true love for her. Which beau will win Anne’s hand in marriage?
Falstaff is a memorable character because he is the embodiment of pure id, of the Freudian pleasure principle incarnate, who is mentioned in Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and their Relationship to the Unconscious. I don’t know this for a fact, but Falstaff may mark the start of the overweight character being a frolicking figure of fun, that has been perpetuated by comics such as Fatty Arbuckle, John Belushi, John Candy, etc. (In LA Opera’s 2014 production of Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff, it took baritone Roberto Frontali 55 minutes to get into his makeup and fat suit.)
Nevertheless, Shakespeare did give Falstaff one truly tragic moment in Henry IV, Part 2, Act V, Scene 5, which is also in 1966’s Chimes at Midnight, wherein the rather rotund Orson Welles depicted Falstaff with panache. The portly knight has cavorted, wenched, reveled, drank, etc., with his younger pal, Prince Hal, for years.
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But when Hal’s royal father dies and he must ascend to the throne, the prince turns his back on Falstaff when the fat, down-on-his-luck womanizer approaches the newly minted monarch at his coronation, denying his old friend – and the carefree lifestyle the happy-go-lucky Falstaff represents, as he prepares to wear the crown and accept the duties and statesmanship now expected of him as king – and icily states: “I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers.” This takes the winds out of Falstaff’s sails, just as the tricks that Windsor’s merry wives play on him also do, albeit in a more lighthearted way. Perhaps there is a feminist message here, especially when Anne Page proclaims the especially appropriate dialogue: “Why can’t I make my own choice?” In any case, it’s interesting to ponder the role of that politically incorrect roue Falstaff in today’s #MeToo world…
Other standouts in this Merry band of actors include those WGTB stalwarts Melora Marshall, as the whimsically named Quickly, and Earnestine Phillips as Hostess of the Garter, a saloon located stage right, where Falstaff but of course loves to imbibe and cavort. Phillips belts out a humorous version of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s 1959 rock classic “Love Potion Number 9” as the paunchy Falstaff tries to bed the already married women he is trying to romance. (None of the songs of the two-act play with one intermission are originals written expressly for this show.)
Director Ellen Geer’s iteration of Merry reminded this transplanted Manhattanite of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s storied 1971 production of Two Gentlemen of Verona, which impresario Joe Papp and Hair’s composer Galt MacDermot transformed into a rock musical, transported from Italy to NYC and rocketed Raul Julia to stardom. After the musical moved from Central Park to Broadway, NY Times critic Clive Barnes rhapsodized:
“This, I must stress, is not a spoof of Shakespeare. There are a few tastefully contrived anachronisms—a bicycle here and a telephone here—and of course its whole urban mood has been translated into New York’s own melting pot of ethnic juices and verbal babble. Yet in general this is—to adapt a line from a previously famous Shakespearean musical, Cole Porter’s “Kiss Me, Kate”—always true to Shakespeare darling, in its fashion, always true to Shakespeare in its way. Certainly I prefer it to any number of pious bardic pilgrimages where the pilgrims have lost their way in piety.” (See here.)
And according to Theatre’s Leiter Side: “Shakespeare’s Italianate lovers Julio (Carla Pinza: Central Park/Diana Davila: Broadway) and Valentine (Clifton Davis), were transmogrified into Puerto Rican and Black ghetto hipsters, and the characters around them represented other spicy ingredients in the melting pot of urban America.” (See: slleiter.blogspot.com/2021/05/551-two-gentlemen-of-verona-from-my.html.)
Act I of WGTB’s The Merry Wives of Windsor is mildly amusing, while the rollicking, uproarious Act II is highly entertaining. My yearly vagabondage to the start of the season at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum – that glorious arboretum/amphitheater and heavenly haven of all things Shakespearean, rustically ensconced in, shall we say, “Stratford-Upon-Topanga” – is an annual event I always joyfully look forward to. Happily experiencing this first offering of WGTB’s repertory program, outdoors under the stars and beneath the moon, is a great way to begin the summer. Let the merriment begin!
The Merry Wives of Windsor runs through Oct. 2 in repertory with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Wes, Side Waltz and Trouble the Water at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga CA 90290 (midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway). For info: (310)455-3723 or www.theatricum.com. It can get chilly at night in the open-air amphitheater, so dress warmly. Pandemic protocols are observed, so bring proof of vaccination – and an anticipation to be delighted.