View Our Facebook PageView Our Facebook PageView Our Facebook Page
Your Guide to Cultural
Arts in America
Art Museums, Theater, Dance
& Music Happenings in 90+ Cities!
or go to
Arts America Blogs

Farcical ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor,” doesn’t leave well enough alone @ Great Lakes Theater

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association and Cleveland Critics Circle)

“The Merry Wives of Windsor,” a version of which is now on stage at Great Lakes Theater, is considered by many literary critics to be one of Shakespeare’s “lesser” plays.  Not bad, just not up to the dramatic level of the great writer, though its farcical nature is often praised.

Nicholas Rowe, a Bard expert, indicates that the reason the play was written may account for its structure and format.  According to Rowe, Queen Elizabeth was pleased with the character of Falstaff in two parts of “Henry IV” so she commanded the writer “to continue him for one play more,” for a special occasion.  She wanted and got a fun farce which is intended to be a romp, delightful, and for audience enjoyment.

It is the opportunity for creative staging that should make this production excellent, since Tracy Young, the show’s director, is noted for her imagination.  In my review of “The Imaginary Invalid,” which she staged for GLT a while back, I stated, “Under director Young’s guidance, the cast has a wonderful time and so does the audience.  She directs with a broad brush, creating lots of easy to laugh at shticks.”

If only I could write that about “The Merry Wives.”

I’m not a Shakespeare purist.  I like a director with creativity, but the reinvention has to be purposeful.  From my perspective, Young tried to add message where it wasn’t needed.

The director explains in her program notes that the play is now placed in an era following the Second World War.  (Why?)  She has moved the place from Windsor, England to Windsor, Wisconsin.  (Why?)

The director refers to the late 1940’s era  as a time of “darker awareness of humanity,” and “tensions between ideals of community and individualism, transformations of accepted notions of status, and evolving expectations of traditional gender roles.”  Yes, some of these ideas are lightly hit upon in “Merry Wives,” but Shakespeare wrote the script as a farcical romp, not a “message play.” Yes, Madam Director, create broad farce, but why attempt to add a social/political message where none was intended?

The slight story centers on Falstaff, one of the Bard’s most beloved creations.  Falstaff, the boisterous, lively, funny and mischievous fat man gets himself into all sorts of trouble, thus delighting audiences.  In “Merry Wives” he comes to the city, broke, and desiring to get some quick money.  Young has imagined him as “a down-on-his-luck celebrity in exile from Hollywood.  Think Orson Welles plotting his come-back!”  (Why was that twist added?  Does that add humor?)

He thinks he can get cash by deceiving Mistresses Ford and Page, as they are “only” women.  As it turns out, the ladies turn the tables on Falstaff, resulting in his getting put into a trash container, dumped into the river, being forced into women’s clothing in order to escape the wrath of the ladies’ husbands, getting thrashed, and humiliated.  (That’s all from the original script.  No need for Orson Welles references.)

In a subplot, three different men are trying to win the hand in marriage of the Page’s daughter, Anne.  The mother prefers Doctor Caius, a French physician. The father wants her to marry Mr. Slender.  Anne, herself, is in love with Mr. Fenton.  In the end, there is a festival as each of the men gets what he really wants.

Production questions arise:  Why do accents come and go?  Why is Dr. Caius unintelligible?  Why does Falstaff keep changing physical size?  What is the purpose of the costumes (Hawaiian shirts and grass skirts, safari clothing, modern day suits, varying eras of women’s fashions)?  Why the large contemporary set that makes movements on stage difficult?  What is the purpose of the group of children, who are at various times  Scouts, birdwatchers, and ballet dancers?

Fortunately, Young has inserted some great shticks.  The farce is at a high level. The pace zips along, though the ninety-minute first act is a long sit, followed by another, though shorter act.  Most of the acting is excellent.

Laura Welsh Berg and Jodi Dominick are delightful as Mrs. Ford and Mrs. Page as are Lynn Robert Berg and Ian Gould as their husbands.  When he is allowed to go over the top in his performance, Aled Davies is fun as Falstaff, but too often he is bogged down by the film scenes and other sidetracks that are intended to develop the “plot.’  His getting thrown into the trash and impersonating of a woman scenes are what this script is all about!

Clare Howes Eisentrout is charming as Ann Page.  Sam Wolf (Fenton) shows some great dancing talent in the celebration scene.

Capsule judgement:  Opening night audience reactions to “The Merry Wives of Windsor” varied greatly.  Many of the spectators generally sat in stony silence, not even giving the show the traditional Cleveland standing ovation.  A group in the theatre’s rear section laughed constantly and stood at the curtain call.  A fellow reviewer left at intermission stating, “I’ve never walked out of a show before!” Me? Though there were some very entertaining segments, this was not one of my favorite evenings of Shakespeare.

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” runs through November 2, 2014 at the Hanna Theatre.  For tickets go to: 216-664-6064 or