Theatre review: Merry Wives of Windsor is a little bit country

Codpieces and corsets are replaced by cowboy buckles and sundresses in Bard on the Beach’s inventive and countrified Merry Wives of Windsor.

Having already taken in the main stage shows at this year’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, the topic of conversation as we drove to the first of the year’s two Studio productions, was how it might be nice to see something a little less traditional.  It didn’t take long after entering the Studio Stage tent to realize we got our wish, as we found ourselves inside Windsor, Ontario’s Garter Inn circa 1968.

From Pam Johnson’s set to Drew Facey’s colourful retro costumes, director Johnna Wright plunges us into her new locale and time in presenting the Bard’s rather repetitive story of how ex-pat Sir John Falstaff’s plans to woo a couple of locals into solving his money troubles backfires.

But while set and costumes help to set the time period, it is musical director Benjamin Elliott’s music choices, that include such 60s hits as Patsy Cline’s Crazy and These Boots Are Made for Walking made famous by Nancy Sinatra, that set the mood and are one of the production’s biggest surprises.  As we left last night my theatre-going partner wondered if it might be apt to call this particular production “jukebox Shakespeare”.

Helping to bring the 60s to life is a cast that seems to pay homage to a variety of characters from the era.  Patti Allan is delightful as Mistress Quickly who runs interference between most of the characters, all the while channeling Ann B. Davis’ Alice from The Brady Bunch.  In a sea of over-the-top performances David Marr goes über French a la Inspector Clouseau, and Todd Thomson is downright hilarious as a Bob Dylan wannabe as the Inn’s Host.

Katey Wright and Amber Lewis work well off each other and are at their best during the scenes where they are dealing with the ageing and overweight Falstaff, played with pompous perfection by Ashley Wright.  Despite their good work though the duo does seem to be sharing some secret between them that we’re never quite privy to and that seems to go beyond the mischief of their characters.

Neil Maffin and Scott Bellis are perfectly mad men as the two husbands, but it is Bellis’ turn as beatnik Mr Brook that steals the show; just wait until you hear him recite Shakespeare as a beatnik poet – it’ll have you snapping your fingers in appreciation too.  And the man can sing, receiving the night’s biggest applause for his renditions of Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart and, in a hilarious twist, sings the Tammy Wynette classic about how sometimes it is tough to be a woman.

While the usually dull central story is a great deal of fun under Wright’s direction, she cannot overcome Shakespeare’s even more uninteresting sub-plot about two suitors seeking the Page daughter Ann’s hand in marriage.  This is a shame as Kayla Deorksen, Daryl King and Aslam Husain work well in their roles but are rarely given an opportunity to take center stage.

Despite a sub-plot that seems to bring the almost frenetic pace to a standstill each time it makes an appearance, this Merry Wives of Windsor isn’t just merry, at times it’s downright outta sight.

4 Out of 5 Stars Merry Wives of Windsor

By William Shakespeare.  Directed by Johnna Wright.  A Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival Production.  On stage at Vanier Park through September 21, 2012.  Visit http://www.bardonthebeach for more information.

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