WIL Festival 2.1: “The Merry Wives of Windsor”

“The Merry Wives of Windsor” is also known as “that other Falstaff” play. The rumor goes that Queen Elizabeth, having been moved by William Shakespeare’s revisions of several older plays into a coherent teratology we call the Henriad, requested Falstaffe be written into another play. But he was already dead by the start of “Henry V,” so now what? “Merry Wives” conscripts the genre of angry women plays to provide a simultanequel: a simultaneous universe where Falstaffe doesn’t die, and instead enjoys his knighthood in the rolling countryside of Windsor. This composition context of “Merry Wives” makes it a perfect play to talk about your brain on repertory.

From left: Keith Cable (Ford, disguised as Broom) and David Bellis-Squires (Falstaffe).

As I discussed in my last post, repertory is the system of playing used in sixteenth-century England by the professional theatre industry (and still used by certain companies in the U.S. and U.K. today). Falstaffe is brought into “Merry Wives” to summon up our memories of the “Henry IV” plays, his brand of wit and associations with the rascal that would be king, Hal. Falstaffe is particularly attractive to American audiences because he so openly rejects the virtues of honor and ceremony we connect with monarchy (or at least in opposition to democracy). Falstaffe is up-cycled in “Merry Wives,” brought in to challenge our assumptions about what is virtuous behavior, which in the ancient Roman case would have literally meant “the quality of being manly.”

From left: Sarah Jane Fridlich (Mrs. Page) and David Bellis-Squires (Falstaffe).

Repertory maximizes different kinds of repetitions to trigger our memory. The repetition of a character like Falstaff is one way. The repetition of props and costumes from other productions, their previous lives haunting the current show, is another. The WIL Fest, providing multiple plays over the series of a few nights where many actors play many roles sequentially, is another. When you see actors in two or more roles in two or more separate plays over the weekend, your memory is triggered in two especially interesting ways:

  1. aspects of their previous role(s) bleed through in your memory, triggering you to compare to the two characters, to watch for similar tactics and phrases, and hear the contrasts much more clearly because you have an immediate point of comparison in your mind.
  2. major themes and habits between the plays start to bubble up to the surface, giving us a concrete sense of what ideas are actually idiosyncratically “Shakespearean” and not.

So, when you are watching the plays this weekend, do follow your favorite actors. If you can catch them in two or more plays in the weekend, let your memory be your guide as a way to participate in the experience. I discuss an example of this bleed-through at the very end of this post, but first:

From left: Emma Whiteside (Robert), Ken Yoshikawa (John), Sarah Jane Fridlich (Mrs. Page), and Shani Harris-Bagwell (Mrs. Ford).

Plot

Falstaffe woos two wives simultaneously hoping they will shower their husbands’ money on him. Discovering this, they teach him a lesson using their wits and a jealous husband. Meanwhile, three suitors compete for Anne who, defying her parents, chooses for herself. All plots uncovered in a fairy filled finale. [From the playbill.]

Clever Cues

A running gag about marriage proposals took hold early on. Prompting today was Shandi Muff, who, in the first scene that the wealthy Windsor husbands, Mr. Page (Tom Witherspoon) and Mr. Ford (Keith Cable), introduce themselves, she interjects to get a sense of how the two of them proposed to their wives. It was a successful tactic to help the audience quickly differentiate between the two husbands (who won’t get a lot of stage time to develop), as well as differentiate between the two kinds of marriages they represent. While his wife (Shani Harris-Bagwell) is performed as perfectly devoted, Ford’s proposal seems to have been less than romantic:

FORD: Wehavebeenseeingeachotherforawhilewouldyouliketogetmarried. There was a proposal. It was agreed to. It was a transaction. I don’t know what you want!
PROMPTER: How long have you been married?
FORD: I don’t know!

Mrs. Page makes clear in her own aside later that a happy marriage is one where you are the top of the relationship food chain. Later, the prompter interjected to ask the same of Mr. Page while talking to Shallow (David C. Olson). Mr. Page turns to Shallow, gets on his knee, and delivered an epic and moving proposal so convincing Page and Shallow have an impromptu make-out session. Asides about the quality of marriage proposals continued throughout the performance.

Another quick example of a well-executed improvisation on a Prompter’s interjection was when Falstaffe (David Bellis-Soires, who was brought in to pinch-hit at the last minute for Rusty Tennant) was asked for an alternative fact about his character:

FALSTAFFE: I’m on the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet, and four or five others…I don’t think you’re supposed to do them all at once.

Interesting Interruptions

Aside from a number of rumbling dogs in the audience, there were no real interruptions from the environment that could have been capitalized on in performance. Brian as the Host as well as artistic director of the troupe did sneak in a thing we call “embedded advertisement,” which we see in a number of non-Shakespearean plays from the seventeenth century: allusions to other plays being performed in repertory by the company. The Host likes to flatter his patrons, especially Falstaffe, with the affectionate title: “Bully [insert hero here].” The Host refers to him as “Bully Hercules…Bully Caesar—later tonight—” and carried on with his speech. While the “later tonight” in reference to the performance Julius Caesar happening at 7PM, is not in the text per se, it is certainly in the spirit of the practices of the period.

From left: Megan Murphy Ruckman (Mistress Quickly), Megan Haynes (fairy), Jonah Leidigh (fairy), David Bellis-Squires (Falstaffe), Jurnee Neeko (Anne Page), Stan Brown (Sir Hugh Evans), Emma Whiteside (Simple), and Shnadi Muff (prompter).

Distilling Dramatury

Last night, Ken Yoshikawa played Romeo. When he came onstage as Fenton this afternoon, the suitor to Anne Page, I immediately brought all of my memories of him from yesterday and attached them to this new romantic persona. Both are men desperate for their loves and blocked by parents—mothers, in fact—that have other ideas (and economic motivations) about who the lady should marry. Rather than seek counsel from a friar or militant friends, this lover instead makes a case with logic, conscripting help from sympathetic parties, including the Host (Allard, who also played Frier Lawrence, another lover-boy’s aide, last night).

From left: Brian Allard (Host) and Ken Yoshikawa (Fenton).

Yoshikawa as both Romeo and Fenton gives us two models of what it might look like to be a romantic, young suitor. As Fenton, he came up with an ingenious scroll to help narrate this complex abduction plan to the Host. Timing the unrolling to match his lines (IV.vi for those playing at home), it made a difficult speech crystal clear. It also convinced us of his earlier claim that while her “father’s wealth / Was the first motive that I woo’d,” it is now “the very riches of [her]self” that is his aim. While you might suspect ulterior motives of Romeo, he certainly never admits to any other interests in marrying Juliet aside from her beauty. (That Yoshikawa was also doubled as Nym, who recommends to “deal with poison,” also immediately brings Romeo to mind.) That Romeo and Fenton are performed by the same actor in close succession helps underscore the juxtaposition. Both characters go for the marry-now-apologize-later tactic. Fenton uses logic and doesn’t pull it off alone in order to hang on to Anne Page once he has her. Romeo lets go of Juliet for a moment, and in that brief exile all things come to confusion. The juxtaposition ages the questions: What kind of lover are you? What kind of lover do you have? What kind of lover would you prefer?

 Ready for more? Up next today, Saturday, 22 July, at Irving Park (NE Fremont):

7:00PM “The Tragedy of Julius Caesar”

Up tomorrow, Sunday, 23 July, at  Irving Park (NE Fremont):

2:00PM “Much Ado About Nothing”
7:00PM “The Tempest”

Interested in chatting about anything you read here on the blog or about the shows you are seeing at WIL Fest? Do feel free to come find me and chat! I’ll be in a blue OPS Fest t-shirt, red lawn shirt, taking copious notes! You can also follow along with the hashtags #OnlyAtOPS on Twitter and Instagram.


  • The WIL Festival, presented by the Original Practice Shakespeare Festival, runs 21 July to 6 August 2017. These will be rotation between the Portland parks of Willamette, Irving, and Laurelhurst, so check the online calendar for details.
  • Free and open to the public, a green bucket is passed around after the show for donations. Want to donate online? Contribute to the Indiegogo campaign going on right now, and get some cool swag, too!
  • Note that this is an outdoor performance, so do bring a lawn chair, beach chair, blanket, or other seating option. There is usually ample free parking in the parks themselves, as well as on the street in the nearby neighborhoods. Do watch-out for boats near the river launches.

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