By Sara Dudley Brown, Theatre Editor
The Merry Wives of Windsor is a Shakespeare comedy based on love, money, deception, and the wiles of women. If these words spark terror in your heart, run away! If not, sit here next to me because you are in for a treat. It’s all on the Folger stage: 70’s music, colorful clothes, platform shoes, tight bell bottom pants, white plastic boots, a Brady Bunch looking set, there are even signs about the ERA movement in the aisles and in the balconies! And it’s Shakespeare, folks! You’ll see!
Aaron Posner directed this far-out 1970’s-infused production. The set by Tony Cisek (Anthony and Cleopatra) looks as if the Brady Bunch or Partridge Family has just left the building, and the costumes by Devon Painter are pure 70’s weird, but kind of wonderful, too. Did we really LIKE these awful patterns in the 70’s? Yep! Muddy browns, oranges, avocado greens, houndstooth patterns on Falstaff’s enormous belly, platform shoes, and even roller skates! This is a play for the eye and the ear as well! The music (70’s real tracks, as well as original music) by Matthew Nielson is delightful.
The crux of the play is this: Sir John Falstaff hatches a dubious plan to woo the wealthy wives of Windsor, pilfer their fortunes, and make their husbands green with jealousy. The scheming plot is met with fun-filled retaliation when the ladies devise a plot to teach Falstaff a lesson (or two, or three) he won’t soon forget. Aaron Posner posits, “For a story about smart women taking matters into their own hands, setting the play in a mythologized version of the early 1970’s, a time when women’s lib was finding its footing seemed like a really fun idea. Women were trying on a new power, a new freedom, and the world (along with their husbands) were figuring out a new paradigm.”
Every actor in this first-rate cast deserves praise for creating this wonderful show filled with great physical comedy, but a few standouts need to be discussed. Kate Eastwood Norris (Mistress Quickly), a Folger Theatre favorite, simply runs away with the show! I saw her earlier this year in Folger’s 1 Henry IV in the same role (Mistress Quickly). However, this time her accented Shakespearean language, the origin of which I could not place, made all her appearances on the stage not only entertaining, but easy to understand. Her costumes, especially her headgear, including the large white sunglasses which she uses to great effect, are marvelous!
Dr. Caius (Cody Nickell) made his role about as colorful as it can be while butchering the English language to delicious effect! But Sir John Falstaff played by Brian Mani in wild checks and houndstooth pants (just one of many awful but hilarious outfits), takes the stage by the throat and doesn’t let go until the play’s end. He’s delightful and hateful in equal measure.
By the way, this is Folger’s last show for two years in the historic theatre located within the largest Shakespeare collection in the world! The library is undergoing a $60 million, two-year renovation to expand public spaces, improve accessibility, and enhance the experience of visiting. The cozy theatre with the quirky sightlines, thankfully, will not be touched. During the renovation Folger Theatre will be partnering with other theatre companies around town.
Just in case you’re wondering, I strongly suggest you get your tickets now for this marvelous production! I’m still laughing and thinking about the extreme characters, behaving somewhat badly, but with good hearts and lessons to learn.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is on stage now through March 1, 2020. Running time is 2 hours 30 minutes with one intermission. Tickets may be purchased through the Folger Theatre Box Office at 202-544-7077 or at www.folger.edu/theatre.