Review: Bard on the Beach—The Merry Wives of Windsor

          1960’s North America meets Elizabethan England in The Merry Wives of Windsor at Bard on the Beach. First mounted in 2012, the Shakespearean play is back in full swing: part theatre, part musical, The Merry Wives of Windsor has been touted as enjoyable for anyone, regardless of prior knowledge or fandom for the undying playwright.

           This play earns a wide audience base; it feels more accessible than other Shakespeare works as it has less Elizabethan jargon to decipher. The writing of the play itself didn’t stand out to me as particularly spectacular, but the interpretation and commitment of the cast, director and designers were outstanding.

Banner c/o Bard on the Beach

Banner c/o Bard on the Beach

Bard on the Beach puts on an amazing production. Full staging, lights and original costume design reveal a graciously funded arts organization. If you haven’t been to Bard on The Beach, don’t be fooled by the mention of outdoor tents and stage; the production quality is that of an elaborate theatre.

The story involves the cunning revenge of two married women who learn they both are being pursued by a sleazy Sir John Falstaff. Other characters engage in love misalignments as well as the story progresses, with the outcomes easily predictable. As per Shakespeare’s writing, the play feels very lengthly. Just when I believed the conflicts to be resolved, another scene started up which involved Falstaff wearing antlers and hippie-like dancing fairies. The nonsensical whimsy of this scene is akin to other ethereal elements in Shakespearean works, yet it seemed out of place in the otherwise mortal plot.

A standout scene in my mind is when one boisterous Mistress Quickly makes her first onstage appearance grinning and singing loudly, bathed in pink light, wheeled in atop an egg chair. Like many of the other characters, she proves to be as great a singer as she is an actor.

This leads to one of the greatest aspects of this production. The characters are skilled on a variety of instruments, and possess amazing voices. An array of instruments sits atop the stage of the Garter Inn, the unchanging backdrop of the play. At times, background characters would use an instrument’s sound to punctuate an action happening in the foreground, adding suspense or hilarity. This must require extreme precision and obvious rehearsal. Some scenes involve crowd-pleasing musical renditions by the whole cast.

The actors are extremely talented and committed to their roles. In this sense, they were believable as over-the-top theatrical personalities.  They constantly project high energy, which earns the roar of fans and even squeals of children. Their physical command of their bodies is evident, with distinct carriage among characters. One Master Slender struts through the play with his pelvis first, lanky body leaning at a significant diagonal. One scene has two characters fencing. Every manoeuver seems carefully choreographed and smoothly executed.

2016 Trailer for The Merry Wives of Windsor Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival Directed by Johnna Wright © Bard on the Beach. Not for public download. Video by: Bombshelter Productions.

           Shakespeare is just as sexist as ever, and like other works, The Merry Wives of Windsor is full of sexual innuendoes, which this production has chosen to capitalize on. The jokes often seem obvious, yet are reiterated for maximum effect. Sometimes the quips are exaggerated to the point of becoming cringe worthy, as when Falstaff slips Mistress Page into a suggestive position against the laundry bucket. Although unfunny to some, many audience members remained entertained by these instances.

Bard on the Beach is one of those things everyone should do at least once, and this play is a great chance to expose yourself to some Shakespeare with guaranteed comprehension. Dress warmly, as the open air theatre cools down with the setting sun. Plan to sit through three hours, although there is an intermission. Expect fabulously high energy acting and singing. As Falstaff proclaims, “Let the sky rain potatoes!”