This production is probably one of the most successful Shakespeare adaptations the Company of Fools has ever done. Their comic style has solidified into a performance that exudes a coherent, maturely playful humour; the text is well articulated so every word is clear, but never stilted; the playful distance is always fore grounded by the actors themselves which is something that gives the performers a sense that they are in control, guiding the parody, thus making the humour all the more sophisticated, helped of course by Vanessa Imeson’s costumes that are both beautiful and appropriate for this lusty comedy. I suspect that Catriona Leger’s work is behind this, which shows she is quickly becoming a local director to be taken very seriously. The Merry Wives of Windsor fore grounds that drunken rascal Falstaff who played an important role as comic relief in the King Henry IV series.
Here however, he becomes the central figure in what one might call a Revenge Comedy! Husbands, wives, daughters and all those involved in the families of Master Ford and Master Page set about to punish the portly rogue for shamelessly pursuing the married women of Windsor, that is to say, Mistress Page (Melanie Karin) and Mistress Ford (Katie Ryerson). The poor fellow gets beaten, pinched, tossed in the Thames, smothered in smelly old laundry, kicked, thumped and totally humiliated. And yet he never gives up. This play is the perfect vehicle for this company that does a lot with very little monetary means because its success is actor/director based . I must say I saw performances that surprised me a lot . Some excellent talent emerged, even in the absence of Scott Florence who remains in the background this time as Artistic director and Production manager. While Margo McDonald is nowhere to be seen, no doubt busy at home working on her adaptations for the Hal and Falstaff show to be seen this coming Gladstone season.
The only obvious weakness in the show was Falstaff, as played by Matthew John Lundvall. This was unfortunate because he is the centre of all the fun. The director managed to make the physical comedy work (hiding under the table, all the miming and gesticulating in the old ladies disguise, the fleeing basket moment which was hilarious among others) but when the actor is trying to be Falstaff in his “normal” state, which is already the figure of a larger than life rambunctious, licentious rogue, the actor somehow does not get it. In this closed society of seasoned “Fools”, Lundvall stands out as someone who does not have the verbal agility, the comic instinct, nor the pure sense of corporeal liberation that a comic mimic must have. Of course his lack of “Fools” experience would also be enough to prevent him from becoming this lusty bon vivant nearly frothing at the mouth at the site of any female, a man who is both pathetic and hilarious. Needless to say, this Falstaff did not make it and that was a shame.
On the other hand John Doucet was an enormous surprise. He is turning into the inheritor of the talented Simon Bradshaw who has always dominated the Fools stage with his talent for swiftly transforming himself into the most riotous creatures that Shakespeare , or anyone else could produce. At times, Bradshaw even improves on them by returning with his own brand of “personnages fétiches” , like the volcanic, rapier wielding French physician Dr. Caius , someone who is certainly just as close to Bradshaw’s acting heart as the other French speaking Shakespearian characters he has given us on the Fool’s stage. . But now, Doucet is close on Bradshaw’s heels as a mimic and a comic actor. The brazen young alpha male Fenton with the blond wig, the disguised Master Ford who choke’s as he listens to Falstaff explaining how he will seduce his own wife, Brick, the other rogue. At the same time, Bradshaw excels as Falstaff’s pals, the grotesquely magic hand puppets with long wagging jaws vociferating in various British accents, whose heads pop out from the wings as they intervene and comment on events from time to time. Katie Ryerson was totally ridiculous as the blustering old Shallow the country justice whose performance becomes a cheeky joke at its own expense, as well as the charming, playful and thoroughly delightful Anne Page whom all the woman are trying to marry off. Ryerson is just as good as the scheming Mistress Ford who conspires with the shifty Melanie Karin the other outraged wife of Windsor, Mistress Page, to teach Falstaff a lesson. Karin herself becomes a whole team of strange voices and in fact they all toyed outrageously with the audience, winking, smirking, sending knowing glances to all, letting us know…”this is all a joke, so just you watch me now” and then they were off on their plot to destroy the poor fellow.
Geoff McBride, another blooming Fool, is a high spirited Irish priest, the blustering Host of the Garter and the voluptuously flirtatious Mistress Quickly who becomes the parody within the parody of the other wives, the brazen hussy who, contrary to her more morally righteous counterparts, throws herself at all the men, especially Falstaff, barely preventing herself from tearing off her clothes and his…but this is a family show and things never go too far.
The huge table in the middle that served as door and table and all manner of objects in that slightly thrust stage seemed to travel around on its own, becoming anything one might imagine, it was almost a conversation piece as you wondered with it would be up to next but it provided a lot of chances for the actors to create excellent stage business without going over the top. Eventually, the plotting gets even thicker, the children in the audience are invited in to take part near the end and it all turns into a marvellous free for all as we almost feel sorry for Falstaff.
This is all great fun and well executed for the most part.
Go see this with the family, bring along a picnic and spend the evening. It is well worth it. I would say for 7 year olds and up, as long as they already have an idea of the story, and understand that Falstaff is a bit of a drunken clown.
Plays in Strathcona Park every Monday, and around city parks the rest of the week until August 17.
For the schedule see
The Merry Wives of Windsor by Shakespeare, directed by Catriona Leger
Costume, Sets and Puppet Designer Vanessa Imeson
Props designer Jessica Preece
Simon Bradshaw: Master Page, Dr. Caius, Robin, Bardolf and Nym
John Doucet: Master Ford, Simple , Fenton & Pistol
Melanie Karin Mistress Page, Slender
Geoff McB ride Mistress Quickly, Evans and Host of the Garter
Katie Ryerson Anne, Shallow, Mistress Ford
Matthew John Lundvall Falstaff
Directed by Catriona Leger
Vanessa Imeson Costume, Sets and Puppet Designer