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“What is honour? A word. What is in that word ‘honour?’ Air.” So says Sir John Falstaff, a character in Shakespeare who is famous for being a lovable rogue.
Falstaff is a study in contrasts, being a knight while also being overweight (“a huge hill of flesh”), vain (“that Vanity in years”), and a “sanguine coward.”
Despite – or perhaps because of – his character flaws, Falstaff has historically been one of Shakespeare’s most popular creations. The character first appeared in two of Shakespeare’s historical plays “Henry IV,” Parts I and II, where he spends most of his time drinking at the Boar’s Head Inn with petty criminals and lives using borrowed or stolen money. Queen Elizabeth, I was so taken with the Falstaff character that she asked Shakespeare to write a play with Falstaff in love! Shakespeare obliged, and the result is the comedy “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
Theatergoers now have the opportunity to become (re)acquainted with both Falstaff and “The Merry Wives of Windsor” through a very special production of the play at Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia.
The show is part of the American Shakespeare Center’s “Winter: Actors’ Renaissance” series of productions, meaning that there is no formal director and the actors have put the show together themselves. The result is a show that has a bit of an experimental feel while still being of professional caliber.
Props are seldom used—but when they are, they are spectacularly effective. For example, the most minimal, yet also the most effective, set uses a single vine falling through a ceiling “trap door” high above the theater. This simple arrangement is used by the actors to represent the entire Windsor Forest convincingly!
The play opens with two married women, Alice Ford and Margaret Page, the “wives (who) may be merry,” simultaneously receiving love letters from Falstaff. Each enters with a letter folded in the shape of red Valentine’s heart, visually indicating to the audience that each woman has received an identically-worded declaration of love from Falstaff, who is attempting to romance both ladies over to wheedle money out of them. Abbi Hawk (Ford) and Meg Rodgers (Page) do a superb job of portraying two women who decide to provide their inept and inappropriate suitor what the modern world would call an “attitude adjustment!”
For his part, John Harrell is in excellent form, portraying the ignoble but doggedly persevering character of Sir John Falstaff. In this role, Harrell not only embodies moral turpitude, but also imbues the Falstaff character with remarkable physical resilience, being thrown in a laundry basket full of soiled and greasy clothes, thrown from a high window into a river, and eventually being beaten black-and-blue by Alice Ford’s husband, Frank.
An excellent actor also portrays Frank Ford; David Anthony Lewis is in top form as he segues suavely between his character’s early unjust jealousy and later humility, in seeking his wife’s forgiveness.
Appropriate to the pre-Valentine’s Day season, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” is not merely Elizabethan-period slapstick; it is also a love story, presented well in this version with Shunté Lofton as Anne Page and Chris Johnston as Fenton, Anne’s suitor.
In the forest scene when Falstaff is deceived, Anne and Fenton also manage to outwit their elders. An undesired arranged marriage is thwarted, with the two young lovers successfully pursuing romance and a union based on love.
The Blackfriars Playhouse Actor’s Renaissance production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” provides an excellent chance to meet one of Shakespeare’s most marvelous characters, one who has been the subject of operas, films, paintings and more. The show can also serve as a gateway for those interested in history to explore Shakespeare’s history plays; as mentioned above, Falstaff appears in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1” and “Henry IV, Part II.” While Shakespeare’s historical plays are not as popular today as his comedies and tragedies, many Shakespearean scholars hold Falstaff to be even better drawn in the histories than in his immensely popular appearance in “Merry Wives.”
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” runs through April 13, 2019, at the Blackfriars Playhouse, located at 10 South Market Street, Staunton, VA 24401. Running time is two hours, 15 minutes. The show contains some adult-themed content. For more information see https://americanshakespearecenter.com/.