What I learned. . .

I was too intimidated by The Merry Wives of Windsor to suggest we produce it (and that I direct it) at the Great River Shakespeare Festival till our eleventh season.  How's that for caution and restraint?

I'd seen a fair number of productions of the play, some very successful (Kate Buckley's terrific rendition at the Utah Shakespeare Festival; Penny Metropolus's and Pat Patton's versions during two separate decades at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival), and some not as successful.  The ones that worked trusted the script and also assembled excellent ensembles of gifted, truthful comic actors; the ones that didn't pushed and cartooned the story and the characters to a place beyond recognizable human behavior.

Knowing that our company at Great River was comprised of some highly adept comic actors who had been working together long enough to 'play well with others', and also confident that we would anchor ourselves in the text, armed with the guideposts of previous productions I'd admired, I set my course, took a deep breath, and plunged into the waters of Windsor.

It's a challenging play.  80% prose, numerous plot lines (some of which are seen through to fruition, others of which are dropped almost as quickly as they're introduced), and a not always harmonious linguistic symphony.

I knew if we were going to succeed, I should enlist the help of Jack Forbes Wilson, with whom I had collaborated on three previous productions at Great River. It didn't take long to land on a turn-of-the-Century setting for our Merry Wives (actually, 1907-1912-ish), a time of peace, prosperity, and innocence that coincided with the very middle class roots, values, and virtues that informed Shakespeare's vision of Windsor.  (One of my earliest helpful lessons: the word "merry" can mean 'comfort' -- that sense that there is enough to go around. . .  a kind of ease and well-being.)

That time period also coincided with Winona's own "hey day," when it was itself one of America's five wealthiest mid-size cities and enjoying a time of prosperity and comfort thanks to the timber industry and the amount of logging traffic on the Mississippi River at the time.  Winona is known for its Victorian architecture (second largest collection of restored Victorian era buildings in the state of Minnesota); accordingly, I asked Eric Stone, our set designer, to take photos of buildings around town that we might be able to incorporate into a scenic surround for the production.  Those efforts, and Eric's ingenuity, brought together the images in what he called "the tiny village" - an overhead triptych, spanning the width of the stage and framing the set.

Although our second table read of the play clocked in at a brisk 2 hours and 10 minutes, by the time we added our traditional prologue, transitional music, an 'entre' acte', and an epic seven-minute long curtain call which culminated in an audience sing-a-long, the production played in just under three hours (standard for Shakespeare's plays), but evidence points to our Merry Wives being a fast and entertaining time in the theatre.

As for those comic actors, casting turned out to be something of a breeze.  Jon Daly agreed to don the fat suit once again to play Falstaff (whom he had played three summers prior, in Henry IV, Part One - though for Merry Wives, Meg Weedon thought she should slim him down a bit. . .  this was, after all a play about Falstaff in love -- or lust -- and courting anyone in the corpulent guise of the earlier production would not have been seemly or appetizing). Tarah Flanagan was a natural to inhabit Mistress Alice Ford; Chris Gerson and Andrew Carlson seemed ideal as the language mangling Welshman Sir Hugh Evans and his counterpart, the French Dr. Caius; Michael Fitzpatrick had all the graceful generosity and hospitableness to make George Page as warm and likeable as he needed to be; John Maltese, in his second season, made a dashing Master Fenton; Benjamin Boucvalt, also in his second season, a delightfully simple Abraham Slender; Gerrad Taylor, another actor returning for his second season, an energetic and railing Host of the Garter Inn; Chris Mixon a properly addledpated and muddled Justice Shallow and Doug Scholz-Carlson, newly immersed in his duties as GRSF's Artistic Director, a charming Peter Simple.  Brian White and Robert Montgomery doubled as Pistol and Nym and John and Robert; whenever one was on stage, the other was not far behind. Leslie Brott, Steve Hendrickson, and Sigrid Sutter joined the acting company for their first seasons and were splendid as Mistress Quickly, Frank Ford, and Margaret Page; Jenni McCarthy and John Steele, Jr., both 2013 season Apprentice Actors, rounded out the company as Mistress Anne Page and John (Jack) Rugby.  I couldn't have liked it more.  (And we had a delightful group of six young actors from the Winona community who played Robin, William Page, and several school children, which contributed that much more to the sense of community I believe is essential to the play.  More than anything else, I think The Merry Wives of Windsor is the story of a town.)

My director's script became a sea of notes and arrows and charts as I tried to track the action and make sense of the story. So many balls to juggle; so many trains on parallel tracks, each moving forward at its own rate.  My job was to keep it all clear, and, I think, to make sure the assumed plot advancements linking action between scenes were kept in view (or within the audience's perception and consciousness).  So many messages to deliver; so much gossip to convey.  Daunting, but fun.

I learned that not far beneath the surface of Shakespeare's script are lessons about shame.  There were so many moments of people shaming each other or being shamed, by others or through their own actions. Even William Page, George and Margaret's son, in a scene that is frequently cut from the play, comes up against the threat of shame when he doesn't remember all of his school lessons. But Sir Hugh proves himself a tender and merciful schoolmaster, lets William off the hook, and reveals himself a gentle soul not fit for dueling (as he had been challenged to do by the fiery Frenchman, Dr. Caius, an act or two before William's Latin lesson).  The legend, of course, is that William Shakespeare's grammar school Latin instructor had been a Welshman and that he was poking fun at his childhood teacher, which is probably true.  But even in a quick and charming scene, there's more there than meets the eye or ear - and as is usually the case, I was delighted to discover the hidden pleasures of this under-rated, overlooked play.

My greatest lessons about Shakespeare are increasingly about forgiveness. All of his plays seem to contain moments in which forgiveness is required, earned, and granted. . .  or not.  No less so with Merry Wives.  Falstaff receives his comeuppance and is invited home for dinner.  Frank Ford learns his lesson about jealousy and is forgiven by his wife.  George and Margaret Page realize their daughter's marital happiness -- like their own -- is only possible with the person she  genuinely loves.  Parents forgive child; child forgives parents; and at least on the surface at play's end, that sense of comfort and peace in a charming, merry town not far outside London prevails.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Great River Shakespeare Festival

June, 2014

Jonathan Gillard Daly

"Shakespeare's 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' doesn't get any respect.  Critics grumble that the Falstaff who gets snookered by the wives he hopes to bed is a pale copy of the larger-than-life Falstaff of the Henry plays.  The play's farcical elements are disparaged as predictable.  The writing--in a script with the most prose of any Shakespeare play--is deemed second rate.

"Whatever.  After watching the ingenious and moving confection on stage during the opening weekend of Winona's Great River Shakespeare Festival--with Milwaukee Repertory Theater regular Jonathan Gillard Daly playing the fat man--I'm prepared to tell all the naysayers to stuff it.

"Light as this play is on the page, it can light up a stage, particularly when the dynamic duo of Paul Mason Barnes (director) and Milwaukee's Jack Forbes Wilson (music director) work their mojo together.  I enjoyed their fun and inventive Great River productions of 'The Two Gentlemen of Verona' in 202 and 'Twelfth Night' last summer; their "Merry Wives" makes it a hat trick.

"Barnes has set the play around 1900, and when the cast first came on stage together, introducing their characters and then launching into 'Daisy Bell (A Bicycle Built for Two)' I had a moment of deja vu involving the opening moments of the Milwaukee Repertory Theater's recent production of 'Ragtime,' in which a similarly costumed cast presented this same seemingly sleepy world, about to change forever.

"In 'Merry Wives,' those changes involve how we think about love, with Daly's Falstaff unwittingly serving as one of the catalysts.  Old and fat as he is, Falstaff fancies himself a ladies' man, hoping for trysts with married women Alice Ford (Tarah Flanagan) and Margaret Page (Sigrid Sutter).  They lead him on only to take him down--while also teaching Franck, Alice's jealous husband, a few valuable lessons about relationships.

"The particulars of how this gets engineered--Falstaff hiding in a huge hamper of dirty laundry, before impersonating an old woman and then a great, horned stag--always makes audiences laugh; a primping and fatuous Daly ensures this happens here.

"But long before Falstaff gets his final comeuppance, Daly also gives us the slightest hint of melancholy, reflecting a man who might be wondering whether there's more--or should be--than yet another variation on this tired theme.

"To a degree I'd never sufficiently appreciated, in any staging of 'Merry Wives' I've seen, the Great River production made me aware of how many characters are similarly searching, for a new way to think about both love and themselves.  Not for nothing does Wilson insert 'I Want What I Want When I Want It,' from a 1905 operetta about forbidden love.

"'Merry Wives' concludes with a play within a play in which characters who have been speaking at cross-purposes--in a variety of often fractured prose styles and accents--somehow manage to pull together despite their differences.  They honor the power and importance of true love--even when it runs contrary to expectation or intention.

"True to the syncopated, ragtime scoring through which Wilson periodically accompanies the text, the citizens of this Windsor have learned to reconcile the past's traditions with the future's promise.  Watching their final reconciliation, who is to say--as too many critics have--that Windsor hasn't been transformed by what it's been through?

"I was as I watched, learning anew what Shakespeare always teachers: No matter how familiar these plays may seem and no matter how often one sees them, smart and creative productions like this one will regularly remind us that there's always still more to discover.  Even in those plays one is most apt to dismiss."

     Mike Fischer

     Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"It is curious that 'Bicycle Built for Two' should be the enduring earworm of Great River Shakespeare Festival's 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.' Or did 'Harvest Moon' stick in your head?  Or one of the Scott Joplin rags that stitched scenes together?

"Director Paul Barnes has plopped Shakespeare's frothy farce about love and jealousy in fin de siecle Windsor, where innocence rules the sunny skies.  The costumes (Margaret E. Weedon) are bright, the mood is light and musical director Jack Forbes Wilson keeps those songs ringing in our ears.  The cast sings choruses at the beginning of the evening and then snippets throughout the show.  Anyone up for ice cream and a stroll on the veranda?

"Barnes' choices perfectly match the mood for 'Merry Wives,' one of the bard's slightest comedies, and everything about the production aims at accessibility.  Actors announce who they will play, narrate scene changes and occasionally thump a line with modern irony."

"All of Barnes' actors get into the felicitous sprit."  "Oddly, what makes this production perplexing is the same thing that makes it so much fun: Barnes and other Great River artistic leaders have for the past decade preached a gospel of 'text-based' Shakespeare.  Language drives the show, not director concepts and tricks.  How does that square with a 10-minute curtain call that turns into a sing-along with the audience?

"I'm not throwing water on it, because, as I say, this bubbly treatment makes the show so easy to watch.  But let's not get too righteous about the thrill of textual acuity.

"Those are issues for critics to munch on.  'Merry Wives' is a delight.  It makes the trip to Winona worth the effort."

     Graydon Royce

     Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Those who find the works of William Shakespeare inaccessible are advised to hop into their cars and head south on Highway 61 this summer.  Get as far as the river town of Winona and Great River Shakespeare Festival will take you by the hand and lead you unambiguously and enjoyably through 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.'

"Great River, a professional summer repertory company, is entering its 11th year on the campus of Winona State University.  The bill of fare this summer also includes 'Hamlet' and Tom Stoppard's 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.'  The season opener, 'Merry Wives,' is considered one of the Bard's lesser comedies, but it receives a full-throated production by a company unafraid to milk the comic material for all it's worth.

"Director Paul Barnes sets his telling of the tale about a century ago, in the era of ragtime abd bicycles built for two.  Music is pervasive, chiefly that of Scott Joplin and his contemporaries, but also such standards of the period as 'Shine on, Harvest Moon' and 'Tenting Tonight.'  By the time the show reaches its lengthy, singing curtain call, one might be tempted to say the music is overdone, but it's an overt choice for an overt production.

"At the beginning of the play, for instance, the characters introduce themselves, their relationships to each other and their objectives.  Changes of settings, times and venue are announced.  Even Shakespeare novices won't have difficulty following the antics of the vain, wine-loving, cash-strapped Falstaff, who arrives in Windsor with a plan to seduce two married women of means.  The merry wives, who see what's happening right away, seize the opportunity to have a little mischievous fun at the bloated knight's expese.  The sub-lots concerning young lovers and nosy servants are also delivered as if on a platter.

"But for all this clarity, the show travels a fair piece through its first half before it really gains momentum.  Then, like a roller-coaster after pausing at the top of its first rise, it plunges into antics and visual gags.

"The cast rides the swells with panache."

"Overstuffed in a padded 'fat suit,' Jonathan Gillard Daly is an amiable oaf as Falstaff, but he doesn't command the stage the way one might expect of one of Shakespeare's great comic characters.  Daly offers a more subtle, acted-upon interpretation of the role, which gives this production of 'Merry Wives' more the feeling of an ensemble comedy than a star vehicle.  That's a legitimate way to proceed and given the talent that permeates the ensemble, it works in a production that -- though hardly subtle -- is worth the journey."

     Dominic P.  Papatola

     St. Paul Pioneer Press

"They made merry in Winona last Friday when the 2014 Great RIver Shakespeare Festival opened with a delightful production of 'The Merry Wives of Windsor.'  Although generally not considered among the first, or even second, order of Shakespeare's works, 'The Merry Wives of Windsor' offers plenty of opportunity for light-hearted entertainment.  And the folks at the Great RIver Shakespeare Festival don't have to be begged to have some fun now and then.  The play, directed by Paul Barnes, founder of the festival, is presented as a slice of vaudeville-style showmanship, with songs, asides to the audience and broad humor.

"Shifting Shakespeare out of the 16th century and into more modern times doesn't always work as well as it was imagined in the planning sessions.  In this case, though, the festival's "Merry Wives" holds together, in large part because the styling, the acting, the music and the design are so consistently excellent.

"One marvels at the creativity on display, starting with the concept developed by Barnes.  The set, designed by R. Eric Stone, features large photographs of historic buildings in Winona that, while not the least reminiscent of Windsor (of castle fame), reinforce the setting of the turn of the 20th century.  Songs, including "Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two)," "Shine on Harvest Moon" and "Moonlight Bay" also hark back to that era.

"This 'Merry Wives' is for the Will-phobes among us.  It's Shakespeare, it's silly and it's fun.  Who could have guessed?"

     Tom Weber

     Rochester Post-Bulletin