Merry Wives of Windsor at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Merry Wives owes its existence, according to tradition, to Queen Elizabeth the First’s desire to see more of Falstaff, who had become an audience favorite in Shakespeare’s histories. Thank you, Queen Bess!

The play shows us Sir John Falstaff well past his military prime and plotting to ease his financial problems by making lascivious advances to two of the town’s respectable and well-off married women, Meg Page and Alice Ford. They quickly cotton to his absurd plan and conspire together to teach the old rascal a lesson. Complicating matters is Mr. Ford who becomes volcanically jealous when he catches wind of Falstaff’s wooing. In a subplot Mr. and Mrs. Page each want to marry their daughter, Anne, to different, but equally unsuitable men; Anne of course has ideas of her own.

Shakespeare deploys comic devices — narrow escapes, people hiding in closets and laundry baskets, ludicrous disguises — that are used in popular farces to this day. The plot culminates in a midnight meeting on Halloween in the deep woods where Falstaff thinks a threesome might be in the offing only to be terrified by the entire town disguised as goblins, fairies, and all manner of beasties. In the confusion, Anne Page’s unsuitable suitors are bamboozled and true love triumphs. Falstaff is humbled and order is restored.

Cimolino has transposed the play to the 1950s in a town that looks a lot like Stratford, right down to the Canada geese squawking as they fly overhead. This kind of reimagining has its pitfalls, but in this case it works remarkably well. He has also encouraged his cast to take the comic shtick to infinity and beyond. Cimolino has a gift for this sort of over-the-top comedy as he demonstrated in 2017’s enema-filled production of Moliere’s The Hypochondriac (a.k.a. The Imaginary Invalid). For the most part it succeeds in Merry Wives, but not always.

Geraint Wyn Davies is, not to put too fine a point on it, brilliant as Falstaff. He played the role in the Festival’s last mounting of the play in 2011 and he is even better this time around. Falstaff is a bundle, a very large bundle, of contradictions, self-delusional one moment, all too aware of his frailties the next. Wyn Davies conveys all this beautifully and with remarkable psychological realism given the absurdity of the situations. Designer Julie Fox has stuffed his costume with a massive gut and seldom has fat shaming been funnier. Cimolino has devised numerous ways to illustrate the challenges posed by Falstaff’s bulk, none funnier than when he winds up on his back in Mrs. Ford’s bed and cannot right himself.

Graham Abbey who was such a forceful presence as Aufidius in last year’s Coriolanus is here a nimble and manic farceur. The scene in which he leaps triumphantly on top of a massive clothes hamper believing he has captured Falstaff inside is one of the play’s highlights.

Wyn Davies and Abbey are reason enough to pay the price of admission, but there is other good acting on display. Brigit Wilson and Sophia Walker as Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford, respectively, are rock solid as the merry wives of the title. They must be the firm center around which all the madness swirls and they fill that role perfectly. Lucy Peacock, who played Mistress Ford in the 2011 production, does a deft turn as the go-between who sets much of the plot in motion.

There is solid work in supporting roles too. In the romantic subplot, Jamie Mac, one of Stratford’s most reliable comic actors, is delightfully goofy as the idiotic Slender, while Michael Spencer-Davis wrings every last laugh out of Slender’s aged relative, Justice Shallow. Mike Shara is charming in the small role of Fenton, who affects a beatnik-style beret to cover a massive mole on his forehead. Less successful is Gordon S. Miller’s shouted performance as the French Dr. Caius, Mrs. Page’s choice for her daughter’s hand. His body language is hysterically funny, which is just as well because his accent is impenetrable.

Julie Fox, who designed both sets and costumes, has done an admirable job of bringing 50s Stratford to life. Her perfectly detailed costumes run the gamut from proper middle class matrons and their straight-laced husbands, to butch bar owners (Shakespeare’s Host of the Garter is here a woman), to leather-clad greasers and what I assume is a Canadian version of a Teddy Boy (Randy Hughson as Pistol). The main set evokes a solidly middle-class Tudor-style home much like one you might pass while walking to the theatre. Jason Hand supplied the lighting. Berthold Carriere has written 50s-style songs with lyrics by the actress Marion Adler to serve as incidental music. If you didn’t read the program you might imagine the sound designer (Thomas Ryder Payne) had ransacked an old record collection.

The Stratford Festival distinguishes itself with a large company of actors who can speak Shakespeare’s sometimes tricky iambic pentameter with admirable clarity. Merry Wives of Windsor is almost entirely prose, which makes it all the more surprising that some performers, fortunately in lesser roles, fail to convey the meaning of most of their lines. This is the sort of thing that makes some people feel Shakespeare is “hard to understand” and may in turn explain why huge swaths of seats were empty at the performance I saw.

Henry VIII at The Stratford Festival – A Review

Henry VIII is one of Shakespeare’s last plays and one of the oddest. It would seem that the play was designed to compete with the growing popularity among the Globe’s monied clientele of court masques, elaborately staged pageants that featured rich costumes and ingenious special effects. Ironically, the attempt to mimic the court proved catastrophic. One special effect featured a cannon fired from atop the Globe. An ember fell on the thatched roof and the theatre burned to the ground.

Ideally, a new production would reflect that history (minus destroying the theatre, of course), with a large cast, magnificent costumes, elaborate effects, and a splendiferous set in the 1,200-seat Festival Theatre. Alas, director Martha Henry has to make do with the intimate confines of the Stratford Festival’s 250-seat Studio Theatre and a cast of just twenty-two, with considerable doubling. Despite these constraints, she does a remarkable job of creating a certain amount of spectacle. One can sympathize with the decision; Henry VIII is a little known Shakespeare that would not have the box office draw of a Shrew or a Romeo and Juliet. Even so, one can wish.

One thing that sets this play apart from others in the canon is that the title character is not really at the center of the action. True, he is a powerful and often frightening presence throughout the play, but he is often offstage. Shakespeare turns his attention largely to the effect dynastic politics, not to mention Henry’s whims and ambitions, have on those around him.

Shakespeare brings to the foreground three characters whose privileged places in society were brought to ruin during Henry’s reign. The Duke of Buckingham was executed; Cardinal Wolsey was stripped of his offices and properties, and died in disgrace; Henry’s once and perhaps still beloved wife, Catherine of Aragon, was divorced so that Henry could marry Anne Bullen (or Boleyn) and sent into humiliating, if comfortable, house arrest. Each of them has a beautiful soliloquy in which they appeal to the audience’s sympathies (Catherine is also accorded a heart-rending death scene) and each of them is amazingly affecting, even Wolsey who has been depicted as the lowest form of Machiavel.

The original title of the play was All Is True. (It was subsequently demoted to a subtitle.) One can only assume that the contemporary audience had firm, and perhaps uniformly negative, opinions of all of these characters. Was Shakespeare offering “alternative facts” and suggesting with his title that historical truth is ultimately unknowable?

Shakespeare does not neglect to give Henry his own arc in the play, although it takes a good actor and director to make it manifest. We see him first as a cheerful sovereign obviously deeply in love with his wife but shaky on the details of governance (Taxes? What taxes?). By play’s end he has become more Machiavellian than Wolsey himself. The penultimate scene in the play in which he makes the newly appointed Archbishop Cranmer his golden boy and forces the entire council of state, who had to a man opposed Cranmer’s ascension, tow the new party line is chilling indeed.

Ultimately, any psychological verisimilitude falls away with the birth of Elizabeth and an outburst of patriotic pride that beggars the imagination. Could Henry, for whom producing a male heir was all-important, really have been that thrilled with the arrival of the future Queen Bess? One thinks not.

As mentioned earlier, director Henry does a good job of dealing with her limited resources and creates a suggestion of the pomp the piece demands, aided in no small measure by designer Francesca Callow’s increasingly colorful if often anachronistic costumes. I doubt Anne Bullen (Alexandra Lainfiesta) ever danced in a dress with two waist-to-floor slits, but who’s complaining?

For the most part, Ms. Henry keeps a firm hand on the rudder as she marshals an exemplary cast, making sure that the many historical figures, only a few of whom a modern audience is likely to remember, remain distinct. An unfortunate misstep occurs in a scene in which Cardinal Wolsey throws a party. Instead of showing the Cardinal’s real sin — his betrayal of his office in favor of ill-gotten wealth and wretched excess – she depicts the Cardinal as a kinky voluptuary complete with red silk pajamas and purple boa.

As King Henry, Jonathan Goad does a good job of showing us a king driven to ever more equivocal ethical decisions by the pressures of a rigidly patriarchal power structure. But the true star performance of the piece comes from Irene Poole as Catherine. Her confrontation with Wolsey is as startlingly powerful as her death scene is poignant; along the way she depicts beautifully the ironies and injustices of her position as the daughter of a king reduced to mere pawn.

The estimable Rod Beattie seems miscast as Wolsey. Initially he conveys little of the stature or evil the part demands. His line readings are often flat and he reminded me in turn of one of his Wingfield personas, then of an elderly Mr. Bean, and then of Wallace Shawn. Even so, in his scene after the king discovers his perfidy, he was quietly devastating.

Other solid work comes from Tim Campbell as Buckingham, although at the performance I saw he skipped the curtain call, which struck me as a breach of protocol. Festival stalwarts Wayne Best, Brad Hodder, Stephen Russell, Scott Wentworth, and Rylan Wilkie all lend excellent support.

All in all, this was as good a rendition of this intriguing play as one could expect given the obvious restraints. I only wish Ms. Henry had been given the Festival Theatre stage and the budget required to give us a real appreciation of what Shakespeare had in mind.

Some final observations: There seems to be some consensus that this play was a collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, although some preeminent scholars disagree. The program gives the Bard sole credit and I am not inclined to argue with that. The bit of pseudo-Elizabethan doggerel, written by a cast member, that closed the show didn’t help.

The Merry Wives of Windsor at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

If you are seeing the revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival you might want to bookend that experience with The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s great revenge comedy.

Being given a smashing production at the Festival Theatre under the taut direction of Frank Galati (who also adapted the Festival’s staggering production of Grapes of Wrath), Merry Wives is one of the jewels of the 2011 season.

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The Homecoming at Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Harold Pinter is a playwright of such profound idiosyncrasy that he has his very own adjective – Pinteresque. And if ever there was a Pinter play that deserves that soubriquet it’s The Homecoming, which is being given a top drawer, if somewhat flawed, revival by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival at their downtown Avon Theatre.

Teddy is returning to the drab working class London home of his youth. Since his unexplained departure he has acquired a PhD, an American academic career, and a wife. His father Max and brothers Lenny and Joey seem less than enthralled to see him back. Only his uncle Sam has a kind word for him. What follows from this sparse set up is a profoundly unsettling sequence of events bristling with casual cruelty and sexual degradation.

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Labadee, Haiti: Royal Caribbean’s Tropical Paradise

Royal Caribbean has created Labadee as a tropical paradise bearing its name.

On the north coast of Haiti lies a narrow spit of land that juts out to sea from the surrounding hills forming a nice little cove. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines has carefully walled it off from the rest of the country to create a “secluded tropical paradise” for the enjoyment of passengers who otherwise would probably never visit

Since 1986 Labadee has been the largest contributor of tourist dollars to Haiti.

Haiti at all. They call it Labadee.

The original place name is Labadie, but RCCL changed it to Labadee and made the tweaked name a “Service Mark” of the cruise line and, some nondescript ruins aside, everything in it is as artificial as the new name. The closest visitors get to the real Haiti is the Artisan’s Village, where an engaging group of locals sell handicrafts and trinkets to the thousands of punters who pour off the moored cruise ship.
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‘La Bete’ on Broadway, a Review

la bete on broadway

Voters for the Tony Awards have a major problem on their hands. Can they give Mark Rylance the Best Actor award again, a mere three years after Boeing, Boeing? Certainly they will be unable to avoid nominating him for his astounding comic performance in David Hirson’s masterful La Bête.

La Bête (The Beast or The Fool), first produced on Broadway in 1991 to little acclaim although it went on to win an Olivier Award in London, is something of a tour de force.

Written in rhyming couplets in the manner of Moliere, set in Moliere’s France, and dealing with the sort of cultural hypocrisies that were Moliere’s bread and butter, Hirson’s play seems uncannily of the moment nearly twenty years on, with much to tell us about the current debased state of our entertainment culture. (Are you reading this Snooki?) Perhaps that is the definition of great dramatic art.
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In Lhasa, Everbody Goes To Dunya

dunya restaurant, lhasa tibet
The terrace at Dunya

The restaurant scene in Lhasa’s old town, such as it is, has taken a decided step upwards with the arrival of Dunya, a sprightly new eatery with an international menu and an international staff to match.

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Waterpark Pioneer Tells All, A Book Review

Wave Maker

If the guy on the cover of “The Wave Maker,” Tim O’Brien’s as-told-to biography of the creator of Wet ‘n Wild and SeaWorld, looks like he’s been through the wringer, it’s because he has.

The Wave Maker” is the story of a man who believed in himself, who never thought of giving up, even when faced with health set backs that would have sidelined most of us. He had in his arsenal a tremendous sense of creativity, a strong work ethic, and an unshakeable belief that his ambitious projects would reach a successful conclusion.

George Millay, for that is the name of the battered survivor on the book’s cover, is a visionary, an innovative, restive, and determined risk-taker who created two major theme park genres.

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“Wit” Off-Broadway, A Review

This production has closed.

Margaret Edson’s Pultizer prize-winning study of an ice-cold intellectual ravaged by advanced ovarian cancer has moved from its funky origins in Chelsea’s warehouse district to the trendy environs of the Village’s Union Square. And with a new cast it is better than ever.

Actually, I was one of the few dissenting voices on the original production. I felt that the central character’s empty personal life was never dealt with dramatically and left a hollow space where the play’s heart should have been. On top of that, the key roles were played too much on one note for my taste, emphasizing the intellectual rigor of the piece but sacrificing the human connection that would make us care for the people on stage.

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“Doubt” On Broadway, A Review

This production has closed.

No doubt about it, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt is the best new play to hit Broadway in a good long while. In fact, it restored my faith in American drama.

Set in the Bronx of Shanley’s youth, it tells the story of the struggle between the crusty old nun who runs the parochial school with an iron hand and the charismatic young priest she believes has molested one of her young charges.

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