Theater Review: THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR (Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre)

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by Dan Zeff on August 10, 2023

in Theater-Regional,Theater-San Diego


Scholars generally believe that William Shakespeare wrote about 38 plays. And those scholars likely would rank the comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor at or close to number 38 in the Shakespearean canon. The play centers on Sir John Falstaff, one of the great comic characters in world literature. According to tradition, Queen Elizabeth I was so taken with Falstaff’s presence in Shakespeare’s two history plays Henry the Fourth, Parts One and Two, that she asked the playwright to write a comedy portraying Falstaff in love. That tradition claims that Shakespeare dashed off The Merry Wives of Windsor in two weeks to satisfy the queen’s command.

Jenn Harris, Camilla Hsieh, Ruibo Qian, and Angela Pierce

Undaunted, the Old Globe is presenting its own idiosyncratic adaptation of the play. But whatever its inspiration, this version of Merry Wives remains weak, with too many two-dimensional characters trying to deal with too much silliness. The play does come alive a bit in the second half when the character of Falstaff takes center stage, even though the play diminishes the great man into a lecherous and greedy old codger. For his superb comic performance, the audience owes Tom McGowan many thanks.

Angela Pierce and Ruibo Qian

Shakespeare set his play in the middle-class suburban town of Windsor, likely about 1600. There are multiple plot lines, the major one portraying the financially strapped Falstaff coming down from London in a harebrained campaign to seduce Mistress Alice Ford and Mistress Margaret Page, matrons married respectively to Frank Ford and Thomas Page, two established members of the community. Falstaff’s seduction plans repeatedly and calamitously fail, leading to the man’s multiple humiliations, thanks to the machinations of Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, both offended by Falstaff’s lust for their money and sexual favors.

Carter Piggee, Tom McGowan, Madeline Grace Jones, and Bernadette Sefic
Emma Svitil, Jesse J. Perez, and Jenn Harris

A complicated subplot involves the intent by Ford and Page to marry off their children to mates of parental choice, in spite of protests by their offspring, who have selected romantic partners their fathers deem unsuitable. In true low comedy style, all the youngsters end up with the loves of their choice, which may satisfy the members of the audience who managed to keep track of who was wooing who.

The cast of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor
Angela Pierce, Dion Mucciacito, Matt McGrath, Cornell Womack, Ruibo Qian

For reasons that eluded me, the production locale is moved to the 1950s TV sitcom world of Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley and the original Shakespeare dialogue is anachronistically salted with period interjections like “Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’.” One almost expected the Fonz to take over the storyline to sort out everyone’s nonsensical domestic problems.

Ruibo Qian, Tom McGowan, and Angela Pierce

Set designer Diggle deserves a salute for his colorful and detailed revolving 1950s set that dominates the action. The sense of place is further established by sound designer Melanie Chen Cole‘s 1950s pop rock music track. And Lex Liang‘s costume designs are pure 1950s. Mextly Couzin‘s atmospheric lighting design rounds out the creative physical production, but I never did see a connection with any Shakespearean roots. Director James Vasquez wasn’t able to control the saturation of silliness, particularly in the first act, though some spotty acting in minor roles didn’t help.

Jeffrey Rashad as Slender and Camilla Hsieh as Anne Page 

The cast includes 20 speaking parts. Special note should be taken of the work by Ruibo Qian (Mrs. Page), Angela Pierce (Mrs. Ford), Matt McGrath (Sir Hugh Evans), Dion Mucciacito (a hoot as the jealousy-crazed Frank Ford), and Jenn Harris (an excellent Mrs. Quickly, though she could take her foot off the high energy pedal a bit).

Jose Balistrieri as Fenton and Camilla Hsieh as Anne Page

But Tom McGowan is the man of the evening. A glance through the playbill lists McGowan’s many acting credits throughout the country, several of them in Shakespeare plays, but apparently nothing in the Henry IV histories. Any acting company contemplating a revival of these plays need look no further than McGowan for their Falstaff.

photos by Rich Soublet II

Much Ado About Nothing
Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre
1363 Old Globe Way in San Diego’s Balboa Park
ends on September 3, 2023
for tickets, call 619.234-5623 or visit The Old Globe

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