Last Thursday evening I took in the beautiful weather and saw some Fresno shakespeare in the park. The Merry Wives of Windsor is the first show in Woodward Shakespeare Festival’s summer season. The Merry Wives of Windsor is described by director Gabriella Lawson as being “…one of the most under-appreciated plays in Shakespeare’s canon.” After seeing this production of it; I can see why. However, Lawson and company do the finest job possible to bring the bits of comedy this piece has to offer to the forefront, and do it with commitment and gusto.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is a show that, like most if not all Shakespeare, have lots of stuff going on (to put it simply). We have a young love story (tenderly executed by the well-acted Catherine Evangelho playing Anne Page and an adorable Michael Braa playing Fenton), an old man’s quarrel that should never have been part of the story but is quite humorous to watch anyway; and the main plot involving Falstaff (a boisterous buffoon of a character that is well executed by leading man Aaron Spjute) trying to swoon over two wives of Windsor. With all these elements, it becomes a little hard to follow with interest; but Lawson does highlight what the important parts are so the audience isn’t completely snoozing by intermission.
This production has a good balance of over the top comedy, and breaking the fourth wall so the audience can feel more apart of the action. David Otero (Ford) does a marvelous job at doing this several times throughout the night. His constant bantering and plotting against Falstaff as Falstaff tries to woo Ford’s wife, the Mistress Ford (a comic delight in Jennifer Hurd-Peterson) brings to light some of Shakespeare’s detailed and comedic writing. Not to be outdone by Otero, Amelia Ryan (playing a classy yet spunky Mistress Page) brings to the stage a great versatility of mischievous wife against her husband (a stern yet warm Jack Lawson) and as a potential companion of Falstaff. These performers led the show well and never lost the commitment it takes to pull of a Shakespearean play.
Yet, it all wasn’t as well-paced and consistent as I would have liked. The scenes tend to drone on when we are seeing Robin (Kaitlyn Dewey) and Nym (Lisa Tucker) on the stage. It becomes a bit of a roller coaster of pacing between the fast paced scenes of the husbands, wives, and Falstaff and then slows way down when we see these two Falstaff servants. Also, I had a bit of a problem seeing what Chaim Harrel (Slender) was exactly going for. His performance, well-committed I will say, was a bit to commedia dell’arte for me. He was so much different from every other character both physically and vocally that it made for an unbalance in the scenes he played in. It may have been a director’s choice or an acting choice, but I would be interested to see the part executed in another way at some point down the road.
Hal H. Bolen (Dr. Caius), Jessica Reedy (Mistress Quickly) and especially Guinevere J. Thelin (Host) bring a whole supporting energy that brings the audience to much deserved laughter. The three of them, in their own right and when they grace the stage at the same times are so entrancing and an absolute delight to watch. Bravo to these three for portraying these standard Shakespearean characters so well.
Overall, it was a very enjoyable night. I thoroughly enjoyed the universal set showing the forest, and several different houses on either end. No sound problems (rare in the theatre in the park world) and the costumes were magnificent. Highlighting Falstaff’s ensemble as being every bit as bright and brilliant as the actor portraying him. Go catch the final weekend of the show this coming Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (all at 8pm). You can’t beat the ticket price (free, but donations accepted), and it’s great to see Fresno producing some very enjoyable Shakespearean work. Go see a show!