Falstaff Is No Caesar, but There’s a Bit of Trump in 'Merry Wives'
In Merry Wives of Windsor, Sir John Falstaff tries to grab Mistress Page by the you-know-what.
In early June, Shakespeare Dallas began receiving death threats from passionate supporters of President Donald Trump. These callers confused the Dallas company with New York’s Public Theater, which was producing Julius Caesar with a title character who closely resembled the president.
But Shakespeare Dallas wasn’t parodying Trump in its summer Shakespeare in the Park productions. At least, not as Caesar.
Certainly, the company’s season reflects the contemporary climate with or without a flock of orange hair. This summer, it's producing Quixote, an adaptation of the Cervantes novel set in present-day West Texas, in repertory with Merry Wives of Windsor, the play about Sir John Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s infamous comic characters.
He’s fat, he’s crude, and if he had a motto in Merry Wives, it might resemble one of the president’s most famous texts about his lack of self-control around married women. Trump is the ill-witted version of Falstaff.
Much of the plot of this Shakespearean comedy revolves around Falstaff’s attempts at cuckoldry. He’s trying to grab Mistress Page (Constance Gold Parry) and Mistress Ford (Lydia Mackay) you-know-where.
But Falstaff, in a boisterous performance by Steven Young, is no star. So he doesn’t get to do anything. In fact, he ends up in a laundry basket pulling trout out of his trousers, which in 2017 feels almost cathartic.
Its renewed relevance aside, Shakespeare Dallas’ Merry Wives will have you wondering why this is often described as one of the playwright's weaker comedies. The show is set in the colony of Windsor in the 1940s on the cusp of Britain’s decolonization of the Indian Empire, and the set designed by Michael Sullivan allows quick escapes from hints of opulence in the home of the Master Ford (Ethan Norris) to the watering hole where Falstaff imbibes with his cronies.
Raphael Parry directs a wink-wink, nudge-nudge production, which mines the script for punchlines, especially of a sexual nature, and accentuates a few, flat fart jokes. With the help of costumes designed by Claudia Stephens, he styles the two main couples, the Fords and the Pages, as the characters from I Love Lucy — Lucy and Ricky and Ethel and Fred, respectively.
The cast is styled à la I Love Lucy to punch up the sitcom aspects of Merry Wives of Windsor.
It’s a nod both to the era he’s chosen for the play and to the sitcom nature of Merry Wives. By the time a Shakespeare audience saw this play, people were well acquainted with the character Falstaff, who was a crowd favorite in Henry IV, parts one and two.
There’s another romantic subplot to the play, about the Pages’ daughter Anne (Jo-Jo Steine) and her lineup of potential suitors, but it feels tangential in this production. Basically, there are a few guys who want to marry this young beauty. One might be gay (Dad’s choice), and one is a wealthy doctor (Mom’s choice), but she’s in love with the handsome Master Fenton (Matt Holmes). They elope during a kooky, well-executed scene in which some townspeople dressed as fairies torture Falstaff. You know, typical Shakespeare stuff.
All's well that ends well, here. Falstaff admits, “Ignorance itself is a plummet o’ver me,” which is to say he’s sunk about as low as ignorance can take a man. The parents decide to accept Fenton, no one is a cuckold (or cuck, the preferred term of the so-called "alt-right"), and everyone’s honor is intact. Because theater isn’t real. The same can’t be said for the death threats or the president of the United States, who wasn’t reading from a script when he said, “I moved on her like a bitch.” Shakespeare can’t write him into a laundry basket.
Merry Wives of Windsor, 7 p.m. Wednesdays to Fridays through July 21, Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre, 1500 Tenison Parkway, No. 104, $10, shakespearedallas.org.
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