Review: Key City’s muddled Merry Wives

By Jason Victor Serinus
Posted 8/7/19
The endearing absurdity of Sir John Falstaff, the central character of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor (published 1602), has ensured that he lives on in any number of dramatic, comedic, and operatic adaptations.

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Review: Key City’s muddled Merry Wives

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The endearing absurdity of Sir John Falstaff, the central character of Shakespeare’s beloved comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor (published 1602), has ensured that he lives on in any number of dramatic, comedic, and operatic adaptations. That he has now reincarnated, in modern dress and surroundings, as part of Key City Public Theater’s annual Shakespeare in the Park offering in Port Townsend’s Chetzemoka Park is far more plausible than another rotund money-chasing womanizer who shares Sir John’s inability to see himself for who he is, and who currently occupies an office whose name could have been inspired by his shape. Bringing Merry Wives into the present, however, is not without its challenges. Those challenges only increased for Artistic Director Denise Winter when she decided, in consideration of light and climate, to cut well over an hour’s worth of dialogue. Falstaff’s final humiliation gets worse than the Reader’s Digest treatment, losing both focus and joy. Not only did Winter excise sexist and racist dialogue—there’s a lot of it—but she also jettisoned many of Shakespeare’s most delicious lines and exchanges. In doing so, she committed a cardinal crime, for what is Shakespeare without the language? Yet amidst her multitudinous cuts, Winter restored two tangential-at-best subplot scenarios that, for good reason, have rarely been seen since 1803. At the same time, she rolled three messenger / servant characters into one (Ciel Pope’s Robin Shallow), and changed the sex of one character to create a potentially charming same-sex romance. The results frequently befuddle rather than enlighten. Good luck trying to figure out what Ciel Pope’s hybrid Park Ranger character is all about. She displays lots of aggressive bad ass energy, but to what ends? As for Tom Challinor’s take on the absurd French physician, Dr. Caius, one audience member suggested post-show that the roots of his hybrid French/Scottish (or is it Irish or, Lord knows, even Welsh) accent lie in a character from Monty Python. At least one of Shakespeare’s most laugh-getting lines, about a certain waste product, survives his brogue. Nor is comprehension helped by inadequate amplification. In Winter’s winning experiment with theater-in-the-round—the audience is seated on three sides of a square stage, with grateful blanket bearers seated in the middle and given an unobstructed view—the only microphones sit at one end of the stage, inexplicably facing down. You may have some trouble understanding the weakest-voiced character, Jeff Groves’ Pastor Hugh, as well as anyone who ventures far from your seat. The strongest characters—the duo that makes the show—are Crystal Eisele’s fabulously spirited and knowing Mistress Page and Krista Curry’s squeaky-voiced sexpot of a Mistress Ford. With a décolletage forever at risk of a Janet Jackson wardrobe malfunction, and an endearing penchant for selfie self-absorption, Curry is a scream. These two sisters-in-spirit are so smart that the men don’t stand a chance. It’s worth going a second time just to savor how the brilliant Eisele and Curry seize every opportunity to delight. As gifted as KCPT Artistic Associate Brendan Chambers may be, his Falstaff is too healthy-looking, in-on-the-joke, and youthful to convince as an aging, bumbling blind-to-self braggart of bulging proportions. In addition, on opening night, several actors were having trouble with their lines. Too many flubs contributed to an overall impression that many of the men had yet to inhabit their parts and make them their own. Nonetheless, no one will fail to be charmed by the Student Actor Ensemble’s faeries, the freshness of Selena Tibert’s Anne Page, the silliness of Orion Pendley’s pathetic Slender, the verve of Genevieve E. Barlow’s Mistress Quickly, and the community heart that underlies this endeavor. That Mistresses Page and Ford ultimately come out on top only seems fitting during a period when the balance of power between the sexes is finally shifting in some corners of our rapidly changing biosphere. When all is said and done, KCPT succeeds in bringing it all back home. — The Merry Wives of Windsor continues in Chetzemoka Park, 1000 Jackson St., every Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 6 pm through August 25. For advance tickets, go to keycitypublictheatre.org. (Jason Serinus is classical music reviewer who has written for Opera News, Stereophile, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and California Magazine among others. He is also a prize-winning professional whistler who provided the voice of “Woodstock” in Charlie Brown cartoon specials.)

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