Review: The Merry Wives of Windsor by Scottish Rite Theater
by Michael Meigs
Susan Gaye Todd's staging of The Merry Wives of Windsor was a gem in a jewel box.
For the last couple of years Todd has directed the theatre programs at the Scottish Rite Theatre (SRT) in downtown Austin, housed in a 19th century building just south of the University of Texas. The SRT has long played to audiences of children and parents, and Todd has continued that tradition with something of a quirky international flair -- portraying Sweden's Pippi Longstocking, a Bollywood staging of the Grimms' Town Musicians of Bremen translated to Mumbai, a Día de los Muertos play for children Just A Minute, and a recent steampunk dystopian adventure Ashes, Ashes earlier staged at the Kennedy Center.
Todd's heart has remained with Shakespeare and with the Weird Sisters Women's Theatre Collective, which she founded in 2004 while working on an MFA in Performance and Public Practice at the University of Texas. CTX Live Theatre has happily reviewed the annual theatre outings of this merry band since 2008 as they explored Shakespeare, Shakespeare fan theatre, feminist Shakespeare-related shows and LGBT-spun works, often staged in odd locales. The first of the CTXLT reviews was, not coincidentally, their 2008 Merry Wives of Windsor. That was a happy home-made version done at the Vortex.
Todd now has her Ph.D. Her August-September staging of Merry Wives of Windsor was, in a word, gorgeous. The SRT's proscenium stage is equipped hand-painted backdrops more than a century old, and the company supplemented it with a clever stage-left extension representing The Garter Inn, complete with stag's head on a bright red wall. Costumes by Jennifer Rose Davis were elaborate and period-authentic.
Shakespeare is said to have written this work about 1597 on special commission as a follow-on to the Henry IV plays, featuring the much appreciated 'greasy knight' Sir John Falstaff -- a lecher, cheater, frequenter of low-life locales, bon vivant and general bad companion for Prince Hal. Many scholars consider it inferior work, for the five acts give the audience not one, not two, but three come-uppances for Falstaff as he seeks to woo and bed either or both of the proper matrons of Windsor, Mistresses Page and Ford. He makes the mistake of sending them identical letters with subtly indecent proposals, and they combine against him. Falstaff is packed off in a laundry basket the first time, chased out of the house disguised as a crone the second time, and pinched cruelly by fake fairies in the forest on his last attempt. Woven through these are two additional plot lines: good man Ford, doubting the steadfast fidelity of Mistress Ford, seconds Falstaff's attempts to seduce her, while the ingénue sweet Ann Page, is courted by a couple of clowns even though her heart belongs to the penniless Master Fenton (in this production Jennifer Rose Davis, conveniently playing the recorder in the nearby music ensemble).
Todd worked ironic magic by reverse-casting all genders in the story, giving it a special joy and bite. Short but exuberant Terry Galloway was a fine Falstaff behind those fly-away whiskers. The louts and layabouts accompanying Falstaff are also played by women, as were the more serious burgesses.
Mistress Quickly the mischievous go-between was done by the thin and reedy-voiced Bob Jones. Falstaff's intended targets, Mistresses Ford and Page, were played by men, each of them a fine expressive actor. There was a visual irony that nicely matched the comic messages of the play, for the two matrons, played by Jon Watson and Robert Deike respectively, are notably taller and more robust than the swarm of comic 'male' characters. It's the women who dominate in this play by repeatedly gulling Falstaff, and they're larger, decisive and confident. (And they're played by men who flourish in those roles.)
Taylor Flanagan as Master Page is nonchalant, unworried by tales of Falstaffian lechery, while Kristin Fern Johnson as Ford is as broadly comic as they come. Ford pretends to be in league with Falstaff, urging him onward against Mistress Ford, a Catch-22 undertaking that gave Johnson lots of opportunity for conflicted mugging.
The cross-gender casting was especially delicious with the suitors to the ingénue Miss Anne Page (Sean Gajjar, also towering but consistently demure). Kathy Blackbird as the French Dr. Caius swaggered and declaimed in an amusingly credible foreigny almost-French accent. Alyson Curtis as Master Slender happily portrayed that earnest but callow youth as dim and sissyfied. . . a comic send-up of failed masculinity carried out jointly by the playwright, the director and the actress.
The four-member musical assembly with recorder, harp, guitar and percussion accompanied the celebration with 16th-centuiry music arranged by Jennifer Rose Davis. Considering that she was so essential to the beautiful costuming and the eloquent musical accompaniment, it seemed only appropriate that she (as suitor Master Fenton) got the 'girl' Miss Anne Page (Sean Gajjar) in the end.
August 25 - September 10, 2016
207 West 18th Street
Austin, TX, 78701
It's open seating, so you can have groups get their own tickets, then sit together! Hope to see you there!!
Thu 8/25 – 7:30 PM
Fri 8/26 – 7:30 PM
Sun 8/28 – 2:00 PM
Thu 9/1 – 7:30 PM
Fri 9/2 – 7:30 PM
Sat 9/3 – 7:30 PM
Fri 9/9 – 7:30 PM
Sat 9/10 – 2:00 PM
General admission $20, seniors/students/disabled $15 (plus service fees) via