Merry Wives of Windsor

A Stage Door review by Jim Lingerfelt

Stratford's premier piece this season (1995) is Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, a popular piece last here in 1990, and now back again with William Hutt in the featured role of Falstaff. It's Shakespeare's only domestic comedy, the only play he ever wrote that tells of ordinary middle-class people. In his day, Sir John Falstaff was such a popular, though minor, character in the history plays of Henry IV (Branagh even squeezed him into his Henry V) that Shakespeare was persuaded to give the fat knight a play more nearly his own. To play the part, of course, he had William Hutt in mind.

Hutt, who just celebrated his 75th birthday with a city-wide celebration last month, is in three major roles this season, his 32nd with Stratford. In addition to Wives, he and Martha Henry are reprising their Long Day's Journey Into Night from last season, and he also plays Harry in The Stillborn Lover.

In this play, two wives, Mistresses Page and Ford, receive identical love letters from the philandering knight and decide to play a trick on him, setting him up to play on his amorous intentions, then dispensing with him in cruel and inventive ways. They have a word for that today. I can't print it.

Messrs Page and Ford are alerted to Falstaff's intentions, but are unaware of their wives' motives. Ford is quick to a jealous rage, and determines to trap his wayward wife. He fails, and embarrasses himself in the process. Mr. Page, on the other hand, is less concerned for his wife's fidelity than for her choice of husband for their daughter. On this they disagree, and their daughter disagrees with both.

Directors Richard Monette (A.D.) and Antoni Cimolino (Romeo, 1992) have set the piece in Victorian England, and renowned designer Susan Benson has done a typically splendid job. Even before taking their seats, patrons to the Festival Theatre are greeted by costumed members of the cast around a piano, encouraging all to join in the rousing songs of the era (Tra-rah-rah- Boom- dee-ay, After The Ball Is Over, etc.).

Dixie Seatle and Tom McCamus are the Fords, Chick Reid and Wayne Best play the Pages, with Kari Matchett as their daughter, Anne. Stephen Ouimette is one of her luckless suitors, the French doctor, Caius. Ouimette cannot deliver a single line without the audience roaring with laughter. His every gesture is a treat. His dog, Taxi, is back too, but unlike his/her ever-present position in Sir Andrew Aguecheek's arms last year (whereTaxi nearly stole the show), the dog is relegated to two walk-on parts in this season's comedy.

Another set of relatives also appears in this production, with much closer bloodlines. Keith Dinicol plays Falstaff's drinking companion, Pistol, and his 15-year-old son, Sam, plays Robin, Falstaff's page. Sam's understudy (and the one who stepped ably into the role for the performance we saw) is 11-year-old Joe Dinicol.

Barbara Bryne is Mistress Quickly, now a housekeeper for Doctor Caius, and an incurable match-maker and busybody. Anything Barbara is in is assuredly great, although whenever I see her on the streets of Stratford I have to bite my tongue not to cry "Scurrrrvy knave!"-a line she immortalized in that same 1992 production of Romeo & Juliet.

The Merry Wives of Windsor opened, and will close, the Festival, playing until October 28. For tickets, accommodation or information, call 1-800-567-1600.

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