What I learned. . .

No two ways about it: the Utah Shakespeare Festival rehearsal schedule is challenging. Spread over two months, the actual rehearsal hours allotted to productions come out to 16 hours per week (four four-hour sessions), meaning that you get 64 total hours before heading into the three-week long tech-dress-preview process, during which you only get to be with your production every third day of the week. So directing at USF is akin to doing a protracted version of “Shakespeare summer stock,” but because of the needs of the repertory (six shows opening in three days), building coherence, continuity, and momentum is difficult, as is finding time for the relaxed, in-depth second or third pass at a scene that makes for secure, well-developed work. Add to this the loss (for budgetary reasons) of a crucial first week of rehearsal for the 2018 USF season, and the result is that actors and directors tend to depend on what has worked for them in the past, often relying on sure-fire, crowd-pleasing tricks that suffice in the short-term but don’t make for long-term, resonant work. If a director is lucky enough to already be familiar with the play and have a pre-established relationship with the actors who have been cast in the production, then it’s easier to surmount the challenges of the schedule. But without that first week of rehearsal during which so much groundwork is laid, disaster lurks around every corner.

Fortunately, The Merry Wives of Windsor did not turn out to be a disaster.  And even more fortunately, when I met with Brian Vaughn, USF’s Artistic Director and a personal friend and professional colleague of many years’ standing to discuss directing opportunities at the Festival, my ideas for Shakespeare’s only domestic, mostly-prose comedy about Falstaff in love – entirely based on the production I had developed with Jack Forbes Wilson and the company at the Great River Shakespeare Festival a few years prior – appealed to Brian and he made me the offer to return to direct the play for the 2018 season, his first as solo AD.

So, I hit the ground running, hoping for the best. 

John Ahlin, the actor Brian hired to play Sir John, was new to me though he certainly wasn’t new to the role, having played the errant knight something like 25 times in The First Part of King Henry IV, The Second Part of King Henry IV, and The Merry Wives itself.  John had plenty of ideas that he had honed over his time inhabiting the role, most of which adapted well to the USF production and my music-infused/turn-of-the-last-century/Meet Me In St. Louis/Ragtime/The Music Man/ice cream social setting for the play. My only fear, really, was that the particular set pieces which had worked for John in past productions would put us over the 3-hour-including-intermission maximum running time limit that USF requires of productions, charming and self-deprecating as those choices were. (Let’s face it: if you’re looking for someone who wrote short plays, with the exception of Macbeth and The Comedy of Errors, you’re looking at the wrong playwright.)  John proved entirely cooperative, was quick to suggest cuts or substitutions, and when he requested that specific lines be restored to our text, he always accompanied the request with a suggestion for what could be cut.  John was also amenable to toning down the more lascivious elements of Falstaff, tailoring them for the sweeter, gentler sort of Windsor I envisioned (all the more appropriate for Southern Utah audiences), which he did without sacrificing the basic salaciousness inherent to Shakespeare’s debauched, down-on-his-luck knight.  John was wonderfully comfortable breaking the fourth wall, engaging directly with the audience, which also fit with my wish to provide audiences with as accessible a production as possible.

I had met Geoff Kent and admired his work in previous productions: as a fight choreographer for The Lord of the Flies at the Denver Center Theatre Company, and as an actor in Shakespeare in Love in the 2017 USF season.  Geoff is charming and charismatic, an expert comedian, but also someone who can bring danger and edge to a role.  Seemed an ideal choice to play Frank Ford, the jealousy-obsessed husband of Alice Ford.  It was Geoff’s first “go” at the role, and I think my job was to help him find his way in to the part without imposing ideas from my one past experience with the play, which I was able to do with varying degrees of success. Given the more harrowing, pressured aspects of our schedule and the lack of extensive secondary rehearsal time (not only was Geoff playing Ford, he was also cast in two roles in The Merchant of Venice and was playing John Talbott and choreographing fight sequences for The First Part of King Henry VI as well as for USF’s production of Othello), finding Ford and his alter-ego, Brook (and the time to discover and develop them), was difficult. Without proper table work we had to splash around in the deep end of the pool as best we could, with both of us making suggestions and ultimately finding our way to some sort of middle where Ford/Brook worked well for us both and our attempt to ‘swim’ together as a team became more graceful. Fortunately, Geoff is a smart, inventive, creative, and cooperative actor who was open to ideas and had plenty of his own. Once we found the role’s two identities my job became about encouraging Geoff to work from action and intention and to trust that his comic instincts did not depend on going for “the funny,” but rather working from the center of Frank Ford’s idiosyncrasies and chief character flaw.

I was also fortunate to have several actors in the cast with whom I’d worked numerous times, two of whom (Tarah Flanagan, as Alice Ford and Leslie Brott, as Mistress Quickly) were reprising their roles in the Great River production.  But Stephanie Lambourn and Jim Poulos are also members of the loose-knit, unofficial “PMB Roving Repertory Company,” which means we had years of trust and shorthand between us, and I knew I could depend on them to understand what I was looking for and hoping to accomplish, to do their best to deliver the goods, and to adjust easily when or if we got off track, which rarely happened throughout the rather truncated process on Merry Wives.

There were other challenges as well, including an actor who turned out to be suffering from a vitamin B-12 deficiency which was affecting his ability to hold on to lines and blocking and whose repertory load was reduced midway through rehearsals by taking him out of Merry Wives; a first-time set designer on the Engelstad Theatre stage who made a major miscalculation in one of the few key structural elements for the production (but a miscalculation discovered early enough to make a successful course correction, thanks to the committed and cooperative USF technical staff), and various other, mostly typical, inevitably minor “surprises” that occurred as we made our way toward opening night.

Happily, the resulting production turned out to be beautiful, fun, well-received, and popular. Ultimately, I had a positive experience returning to USF after several years’ absence, and look forward to a return engagement in future seasons.  The Festival is an artistic touchstone in my career; Brian Vaughn is a respected colleague whose vision I am eager to support; and you simply cannot beat the spectacular beauty and hiking opportunities in Southern Utah.  Getting to work on plays by Shakespeare in the midst of such breathtaking scenery (and a gloriously hot, dry, high desert climate) is as fantastic and unique a gift now, 25 years after I first began directing at the Utah Shakespeare Festival, as it was in 1992.

The Merry Wives of Windsor

Utah Shakespeare Festival

July/August, 2018

Many of the plays at this year’s Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City speak to the season’s theme of tolerance and inclusivity, often leading to fairly serious depictions of discrimination and even hate. But sometimes you just need to have a little fun. The Merry Wives of Windsor is the answer.

Merry Wives is William Shakespeare’s beloved situational comedy, written four centuries before modern domestic sitcoms dominated must-see TV. As director Paul Barnes writes in this season’s program, it’s his hope that the play might provide abundant comfort and joy for Festival audiences during the turbulent times of 2018.

His hope is fulfilled. Merry Wives is overflowing with abundant comfort and joy. After all, it’s a play featuring that lovable lout, Sir John Falstaff, the man who brought comedic relief to many of Shakespeare’s history plays. He’s up to his old tricks again here, trying to woo two different married women in order to access their husbands’ money.

The ladies are having none of that. They decide to play a few tricks on him instead. Hilarity ensues.

Yes, there’s much more to the plot than that, but it’s not all that consequential. What’s important about this play is that it’s fun and it’s funny. John Ahlin, who played Falstaff in past USF productions, is absolute perfection as the errant knight. This is his play, and you’d better bet Falstaff knows it.

Ahlin’s face lights up with nearly every emotion imaginable, his eyes telling as many stories as his tongue. He’s also a master of physical humor, exaggerating the effects of his mass for comedic effect but also defying it with surprisingly agile dancing and prancing.

Other actors also stand out, including Michael Elich with his caricatural French accent as Doctor Caius, Geoffrey Kent with his own caricatural Scottish brogue as Francis Ford in disguise as Mr. Brook, the ever-majestic Leslie Brott with her Meryl Streep-like command of any role she undertakes as Mistress Quickly, Jim Poulos with his delicious delivery and diction (He gives me the potions and the motions) as Host of the Garter Inn, and Michael A. Harding’s unassuming but ever-present wit as Sir Hugh Evans, the Welsh parson.

Yet the only actors to rival Ahlin for ownership of this play are those who play the title characters, the Merry Wives themselves, rethought here by Barnes as suffragettes. Stephanie Lambourn as Mistress Margaret Page and Tarah Flanagan as Mistress Alice Ford are consistently entertaining in their hoodwinks and hijinks. Their fooling with the clueless Falstaff is giggle-inducing, and their celebratory girl-power handclaps easily win the audience over to Team Merry Wives.

But equally important to the acting is Barnes’ visionary take on the play. It has been modernized (somewhat) to an early 20th-century setting. It’s not just the scenery and costumes that have been updated, it’s also the entire feel of the play. Barnes made the surprising but enjoyable decision to add period-appropriate music to the play, giving it an early Broadway feel with delightful songs like School Days (1907) and Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two) (1892) performed by the company.

Scenic designer Apollo Mark Weaver and costume designer Bill Black also deserve plentiful plaudits for their respective work, including the lush stage dressing that includes abundant greenery, fun props like a canoe and a two-seater bicycle (if you have the song in the play, you have to have the bike in the play), and some truly lovely threads.

All of these exquisite details perfectly match Barnes’ own inspired stylistic choices to enhance the solid acting and the lighthearted fun of Shakespeare’s script for a truly enchanting play.

     Brian Passey

     The Independent