PREVIEW: Merry Wives Comes to Congress Park Next Week
Summer in Saratoga brings many perennial experiences, including horses, tourists, ducks and fireflies. Happily, it also means the annual return of free theater in Congress Park by the Saratoga Shakespeare Company (SSC), which aims to tickle our ribs with a work of the bard not performed in the states as often as it is on the other side of the "pond.”
The Merry Wives of Windsor is a romp of a farce which, surprisingly, was the only work Shakespeare placed in his own time period. Another unique feature is that 87% of the play is in prose, as opposed to the verse most of his works are known for. This feature, among others, makes this perhaps the most accessible of all his works for the newcomer to Shakespeare's catalog of works, according to director David Girard.
As part of the Saratoga 150 Celebration, Girard, a Capital District native currently pursuing a graduate degree in directing at Temple University, said that SSC didn't want to place the piece 150 years ago but decided instead to go back halfway. "The 1930's saw an influx of crime in Saratoga Springs and it's logical to think of Falstaff and his band of cronies as tantamount to a bunch of bootleggers coming into town to seek a windfall."
Falstaff is one of Shakespeare's favorite characters, first introduced in Richard IV, Pt. 1 and brought back in part 2. In the Merry Wives, he comes to town hoping to woo a couple of rich wives to bilk them out of their fortune. The wives, played by Brenny Rabine and Yvonne Perry and cheekily advertised as the "Real Housewives of Saratoga,” catch on to Falstaff's plan early on and decide to toy with him and teach him a lesson. Along the way their husbands, played by Tim Dugan and David Baecker, (the former enraged, the latter not) add to the fun of the hijinks. Add to the mix a young daughter promised in marriage to a loathsome doctor (Richard Roe) but in love with a young untitled beau and you have several story lines happily dancing.
The love story of the ingénues is oddly highlighted in this play since their dialogue is presented in the verse Shakespeare is so famous for, and according to Girard, that shines a lovely light on their scenes and sets them apart from the mayhem occurring around them.
This year SSC has formed a partnership with Skidmore College. Rehearsals took place in two large spaces at the Barnhard Theater, and they had use of both the scene and costume shops. Also, the new alliance allows them to grant college credit to the many interns involved in the production.
While rehearsals move outside in Congress Park on Saturday, I visited a recent rehearsal at the theater spaces at Skidmore.
In one room, a group was rehearsing a scene surrounding the doctor, played by Roe. Girard's rapid-fire speech, high level of energy and creativity is clearly infectious to those around him. When instructing Amy Prothro's Mistress Quickly to use her feather duster to brush cigarette ashes off her head, she was delighted to realize that Roe's Dr. Caius had just mimed tapping them onto her.
In another space, Skidmore professor and Theater Department Chair Lary Optiz (Falstaff) was rehearsing the "Ah, the flesh is frail..." scene with Tim Dugan (Ford/Brook). Dugan's 6 year old daughter Helen will appear in the production as one of the fairies, along with several other area children which Dugan praised, saying, "All the kids are great and wide-eyed!" Indeed, his own daughter, faced with a non-rehearsal day after her first time on the job asked her father, "Daddy, do we have to go to work today?
Speaking with Girard between the two rehearsals, he was happy to discuss the many pluses of doing this particular production in Saratoga this year. "We've changed the Garter Inn where some of the action takes place to a speakeasy. A reference to dog-racing is changed to horse racing and there are 30's music and film references throughout." He goes on to say that the concept of insider vs. outsider status remains very current and that horses and the track are very present as well.
"There are some edits but not many, and the piece comes in at about 100 minutes." The company is also "throwing in the kitchen sink" at the farce aspects of the comedy. Girard is also quick to mention how wonderful it is to have two leading ladies (Rabine and Perry) who are such great friends in real life playing these mischievous wives.
Girard reiterates that this is the perfect entry point for newcomers to Shakespeare, including children. Sounds like a great way to brush off the promised heat of late July!
THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR
Presented by Saratoga Shakespeare Company
Directed by David Girard
Tues-Sat, 6:30 PM/Sunday 3PM
Congress Park, Saratoga Springs
Admission Free (bring blankets, chairs and picnics)
ON THE WIRE