Review: A Merry Romp in the Park from Saratoga Shakespeare Company
If you're looking for a shady, breezy and fun way to spend an early evening in Saratoga, you could do far worse than visiting Saratoga Shakespeare Company's delightful production of the bard's“The Merry Wives of Windsor” in Congress Park through July 28th.
Director David M. Girard has set Shakespeare's highly accessible farce in 1930s Saratoga Springs. Giving a nod to the 150th anniversary of the Saratoga Racecourse, references to horse racing and nearby locations give it a familiar point of reference and music, dance and sight gags borrowed from old films add to the hijinks.
Shakespeare's iconic buffoon Sir John Falstaff (Lary Opitz) is down on his luck and comes to town with plans to woo the wives of two rich men, with hopes of gaining access to their bank accounts. Both Mistress Ford (Brenny Rabine) and Mistress Page (Yvonne Perry) quickly suss out his scheme and decide to toy with him while teaching him a lesson. Many laughs are generated at his clueless, naive expense, some provided by Mistress Ford's jealous, untrusting husband (Tim Dugan).
Being far more trusting and brushing the rumor of romantic advances aside, Mistress Page's husband (David Baecker) hopes to marry their eligible daughter Anne (Rigel Harris) to young, foolish Slender (Matthew McFadden), while his wife has promised her to the pretentious Doctor Caius (Richard Roe). However, Anne has her sights set on young Fenton (Ethan Botwick). While not on stage as often as other characters, the two actors have a keen and earnest chemistry together and were a nice foil to the far more childish behavior of most of the adults around them. Interestingly, their dialogue is in familiar Shakespearean verse, while the rest of the play is in prose, contributing to this being a great introduction to Shakespeare for those new to the experience.
Messengers, confidantes, and mistaken identities abound and the comedy quickly takes on a cartoonish pace. Audiences can expect to be reminded of the Three Stooges or the Marx Brothers, and young kids will enjoy the pre-show antics, skits and tricks performed by the company interns throughout the crowd. Girard clearly has a well-thought out vision for this production and conceit works.
For the most part the large cast is spot on and delightful. The fun chemistry between Rabine and Perry carries the piece, as does excellent work by Dugan as straight-laced Ford and his goofy, disguised Brook, who sets out to use Falstaff to test his wife's fidelity. Baecker's solid, sensible Page serves as a grounding counterbalance to Dugan's far more comic role. Roe's Doctor Caius also provides many silly moments, even if it is sometimes difficult to decipher the text delivered with an over-the-top French accent. Special note should be made of the excellent Amy Prothro as the delightful Mistress Quickly. She has a great deal of fun with a character that is sometimes a cross between a Brooklyn housewife and Olive Oyl. Very funny stuff.
The only slight disappoint lies with Falstaff. In a production which has the conceit of being over-the-top in it's cartoonish nature, Lary Opitz does a yeoman's job with the tricky physical aspects of the role, but comes across as more controlled, refined and proper than one would hope. There is nothing buffoonish in his performance, and this Falstaff fades into more of a secondary role than perhaps it should. Still, it was fun to see him gamely stuffed into a laundry cart, dressed in women's clothing and chased by fairies through the audience while wearing antlers. This is a tough role to commit to when temperatures are soaring into the 90's, so kudos for all of that mayhem!!
Scenic design (also by Opitz), Costume design by Brittney Belz and Sound design (announced as being provided by Byron Nillson) are all excellent, although the cast is often shouting lines more than is necessary. (There is no lighting design as the play is over long before dark.) Scene changes are signaled by a starting gate bell and cute little sketches to distract us from the furniture moving. These skits include picking pockets, flirtations etc. and much of the show is accompanied by period music, both from the popular music of the time and film scores. There is even one fun number called "Do the Saratoga" which got a big laugh at Wednesday's performance.
The show runs a very brisk 100 minutes with no intermission, and while this is free to all, donations are accepted. Audiences are encouraged to bring blankets, chairs and picnics.
This is a delightful, fluffy, effervescent antidote to the oppressive heat and humidity which will hopefully be in the past by the time you read this. But even if it's still with us, this show will deliver a fresh, cool breeze to your funny bone, and isn't that just what you want for a hot midsummer evening?
The Merry Wives of Windsor” by William Shakespeare
Saratoga Shakespeare Company
Congress Park. The Alfred Z. Solomon Stage
Rain at showtime cancels the performance
Tuesday-Saturday at 6:30pm and Sundays at 3pm through July 28
ON THE WIRE