Summer Shakespeare performance choices conform, it seems, to the same sort of trendiness we find in other industries. One can go years without seeing one of the rarer plays, then abruptly it's all King John all the time. So it was this year, when I got to see a production of Merry Wives of Windsor for the second time in two years.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
The Chameleon Theatre Circle
Directed by Carin Bratlie
Logan Park, Minneapolis, MN
June 28, 2008
1. An Objective Production: "In this ensemble-created version of The Merry Wives of Windsor, we have embraced the whimsy of Shakespeare's most prose heavy play (75 percent) and created a world inhabited by inanimate objects." ― Carin Bratlie, director.
Wait a minute! We're going to take a linguistically less lively play and enliven it with lifeless characters? How's that work?
Well, as the actors emerge (this is in a park, so entrances are made by simply strolling down "stage" from the picnic table where the props are kept) each is carrying an object ― a shoe, a fan, a broom, a lantern, a bellows, a marshmallow ― and sometimes more than one because the cast of seven is required to perform multiple roles. So, as Act I opens here come Shallow (Anna Sundberg), Slender (Andrew Troth) and Sir Hugh Evans, the parson (Anna Sundberg). Troth is holding a broom, upside down, out in front of him, and Sundberg has a sock pulled over one hand, sock puppet style, and a mop in the other. They shake the objects slightly to emphasize when they are speaking. It takes a few minutes to get used to.
If Bratlie is looking for whimsy she gets it. The audience spends a few minutes, each time a new character enters, bemusedly trying to make some connection between the role and the object chosen to represent it. Some connections are easier than others: Mistress Quickly is a corset; the host of the Garter Inn a beer stein; Master Ford a bellows; Fenton, Anne Page's wimpy suitor, a bouquet of plastic flowers. And some are a bit more mystifying. Why is Dr. Caius, the French physician, a shoe? Why is the parson a sock? Why is Simple an umbrella?
I kept wishing the company had gone further with the puppets, perhaps constructions of found objects rather than just single objects, the variety giving them both more versatility and more opportunity for metaphorical representation. Or that they had chosen objects that all had some way to be "articulate," like the beer stein with its top that snapped open and closed, or the bellows.
2. Is He a … Staff? You're wondering about Falstaff. He's a group of, well four, large balloons. This leads to a couple nice moments. In one, the balloons are punctured, a representation of the "deflation" of Falstaff's hopes, each time he fails to win his mistress. And I suppose you could also make a joke about Falstaff being a big bag of wind. (Although Falstaff would disagree with you, claiming he is short of wind: "Well, if my wind were but long enough to say my prayers, I would repent" [4.5.99-101].) In addition, Bardolph, Pistol, and Nim (all played by Tamara Philbrick) are each represented by single balloons, the long kind clowns use to make balloon animals out of, and each has been shaped into an initial: "B" for Bardolph, etc. And this affinity or continuity between character design is satisfying.
3. Not So Deep As a Well: The question is how long the whimsy lasts. I'd give it about 10 minutes, then you start to look for something deeper, something like character. And not all of the "puppets" can achieve character, regardless of what movement or voicing the actor brings to the object. When one does work, it's a lot of fun. Master Ford (held by Megan Engeseth), the bellows, seems to huff and puff and is capable of emitting deep sighs. And I especially liked Mistress Page represented by a hand-held folding fan, giving the actor, Anissa Brazill, the opportunity to snap her open or closed to punctuate moments with a kind of hauteur. Would that Mistress Quickly (the corset), Mistress Ford (a lantern), or Dr. Caius (the shoe) could achieve such transcendent, if minimalist, moments.
4. The Actor Prepares: This Merry Wives of Windsor comes off as more of an actor's exercise ― how to animate an inanimate object ― than a comprehensive production with puppets. Falstaff never quite works. His balloons are pretty big, the only puppet that obscures the actor (Andrew Troth) playing it. Bratlie writes in her program note that "the actors learned … how to physically create one stage picture with their bodies while creating a different one with their puppets." With Falstaff, one of those pictures is obscured, dampening the effect of the character.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the play's three most farcical moments when Falstaff is turned from wooing wolf to butt of joke. Mistresses Page and Ford plot to turn the tables on Falstaff each time he attempts to cuckold Master Page, one time dumping him in a dirty clothes hamper (and then in a river off stage), the next time dressing him up in drag, and finally convincing him to dress as a deer then beating him.
Farce works best when it highlights transgressive behavior; we laugh at human impropriety. The use of inanimate objects in The Chameleon Theatre Circle's production removes the sharpness of the transgression. With Falstaff translated to a bunch of balloons, these moments of farcical comeuppance are also translated ― the laundry basket incident becomes balloons stuffed in a cloth bag, dressing Falstaff as a woman becomes draping a lace cloth over the balloons, and Falstaff's buck disguise becomes tying balloon "antlers" around the balloons; not quite the same effect.
I thought, in the end, that the weirdness of using inanimate objects as characters in Merry Wives of Windsor would have one especially compelling result ― it would entertain the children in the audience. (We accounted, through relation and friends, for six.) Despite the kooky antics of shoes and socks, and bouquets and balloons, and handkerchiefs, six-year-old critic Annika Findlay delivered a double blow to the concept. She proclaimed it "too chatterboxy" and took Act V off to go play in the park.
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