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The Merry Wives of Windsor

American Players Theatre, 2013

Peggy Sue Dunigan – Broadway World

“The flower of the garter blooms for every Windsor heart.” So sings the American Player Theatre cast when Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor opens the Up The Hill Theatre season. These beloved characters celebrate “The Most Noble Order of the Garter” ceremony, which APT stages similar to an early 20th century American Independence day celebration only with English patriotism – summer entertainment accompanied by Holly Payne’s costumes and Nathan Stuber’s scenic design.

In the story, Windsor, England swoons with guests from near and far for the ceremony, including Falstaff, a mesmerizing Brain Mani, who attempts to woo two married women to “release their husband’s purse strings.” Mistress Page, a saucy Colleen Madden, and her friend Mistress Ford, a coy Deborah Staples, create an enchanting team to foil the amorous Falstaff and his henchmen. While Mistress Page’s husband, a stalwart James Ridge, denies his wife might succumb to Falstaff’s advances, Master Ford, the amazing actor David Daniel allows his character’s flaws to open up on stage when he seeks out Falstaff to test his wife’s loyalty.

Throughout this madcap adventure in Windsor, three different men try to woo the Page’s virtuous daughter, Anne, acted by a demure, innocent Aidaa Peerzada. Add into this exceptional casting mix, Jonathan Smoots’ over-the-top French Doctor Caius alongside Sarah Day’s Mistress Quickly, and Windsor grows into a very merry place to inhabit. Tim Ocel moves this cast through their paces, with delightful humor, which plays to these women’s strengths pitted against some of the men’s weaknesses.

Shakespeare, whether written into his comedy or tragedy, gives the audience strong women to admire, perhaps even model – often female human beings who live and work as wives and women; women who face jealous husbands or suitors, unfair disadvantages in their lives, or lovers whom they disagree with. In this play, Mistress Page wishes her daughter Anne to marry her chosen suitor, while her husband refuses to listen, insisting on his preference for a son-in-aw. These feminine characters present themselves as Shakespeare claims, “with the riches of their self, of more value than any worldly goods.” The women are loved for themselves, although their love, “may make a beast a man, or a man a beast.” In Merry Wives the audience discovers the comedy of everyone’s missteps and misconceptions of reality, the difference between what they wish to happen and what eventually occurs. To quote Shakespeare: “Where better a little heartbreak than a greater heartbreak.”

At the finale in APT’s Merry Wives, the women have essentially proven their great personal wisdom and worth. Mistress Page and Ford return Falstaff to his foolish reality, a humiliation instead of punishment, and Anne Page outwits her mother and father to marry the man she loves. An ending which defeats the forced marriages young women faced in earlier centuries. When Shakespeare writes the words of these women, who were originally played by men, Shakespeare illustrates egalitarian marriages where loves reigns instead of alliances contracted for property to a man coupled with an assurance of heirs, which makes for entertaining summer comedy.

Director Tim Ocel plays to this perspective, placing the women in command, the confident Madden and Staples, alongside the enormous acting talents of Mani, who leads an accomplished supporting cast. This allows Shakespeare to be placed in an ordinary community where children walk their dogs and roam freely across the action and through the theater aisles to make an audience feel as if they actually live in Windsor.

While Day shines whenever she appears and captures a stage moment worth remembering, the entire Windsor community welcomes forgiveness and hospitality in remembrance of common humanity people share instead of the foibles and flaws separating one from another. Celebrate Shakespeare, theater fantasy in the woods, a few elves, fairies and small urchins that come alive through Shakespeare’s inimitable poetry in APT’s tribute to love of community. A Merry Wives of Windsor which believes even when personal failure happens, healing reigns in the magical hospitality of family and friends.

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