The Merry Wives of Windsor is a light comedy with fun, superficial humor that doesn’t seem to have a whole lot of ambition for a whole lot of depth. It might not be too disingenuous to say that Shakespeare’s comedy is the 16th century version of a sitcom. Bard & Bourbon picks up on this with the production that makes reference to old TV sitcoms. There’s even the occasional bit of canned laughter. And while it’s a really cool idea to do light Shakespearean comedy in the style of some network TV sitcom from the 70s or 80s, the style isn’t nearly consistent enough to be a cohesive element throughout the whole production. I would LOVE to see The Merry Wives of Windsor done onstage in the style of an ’80s sitcom complete with fashions, music cues and commercial bumpers, but the style doesn’t work to the strengths of Bard & Bourbon. The TV sitcom moments felt a bit disorienting next to the rest of a really enjoyable show.
Sitcom concept aside, director Reva Fox does a great job of putting this one together. It’s hard to take issue with any of the ensemble. Everyone here is doing a remarkable job of bringing across some really vivid comedy and bringing it away from the abstract concept of high Art that Shakespeare’s work tends to collect around the edges. Even the most progressive productions seem to have a default desire to handle Shakespeare like it’s archival museum-quality stuff that needs to be handled delicately. (Sucks the life out of it.) Bard & Bourbon distills the fun and passion of a Shakespeare script and diffuses it onstage.
Joel Kopischke is suitably roguish as sir John Falstaff. He’s looking to woo a few wives for personal gain. He plays it very human and sympathetic while still managing to come across as a colossal jerk. The women in question quickly catch onto his ruse and set about a plan to make him a victim for daring to victimize them. (Joel is the “drunk” for tonight’s performance on Nov. 27. More on that a little later.)
Samantha Martinson is joyously exuberant as Mistress Ford, the central figure in Falstaff’s comeuppance. The level of energy I saw from her might have had something to do with the fact that she was the one drinking the night I saw the show. Of course, Bard & Bourbon would be only living up to half of its name if there weren’t actually liquor involved. As tradition dictates, one actor gets very drunk over the course of a performance. It’s a different actor every performance. Saturday night it was the charming Managing Producer of Door Shakespeare who is a talented, young actress in her own right. Strange to see an evening where the smallest actor on stage is the one who is doing the drinking. In order to maintain her strength, she could be seen munching away on vast quantities of popcorn while waiting for her next appearance.
Part of the fun of going to see Bard & Bourbon is seeing that backstage atmosphere going on...at the back of the stage. While not actively involved in the action in a scene, actors are sitting in chairs along its margins. Everyone has a slightly different backstage posture as light props and costuming are circulated about discretely in the background. It’s a bit like seeing theatre from an in vivo midsagittal section. Like...an fMRI of Shakespeare. They’re not deliberately presenting the backstage stuff as part of the action, but it adds to the raw live theatre feel of the show. It’s really cool to be immersed in that.
Emmitt Morgans is pleasantly reserved as Ford--a man convinced that his wife is cheating on him. All too often the character is played with and over-the-top explosively brittle dynamic. Morgans plays to a more tempered humor about the script as a calm and ever-so-slightly cunning Ford. (Emmitt is the “drunk” for the final performance on Dec. 2.)
LeAnn Vance has a very distinctive style of humor that plays well in a studio theatre. Here she’s playing Mistress Quickly with sharply clever moments of wit that flow quite naturally from the text. Look closely enough and you’ll see a very fluid comedic intellect onstage. Okay B&B: Vance was great as Quickly. I want to see her play the role in both parts of Henry IV and Henry V.
(Of course on further review, there ARE upcoming auditions for February's production of Henry V. B&B will do the same job on casting it's always done. I'm just saying...y'know...Vance was cool as Quickly in Merry Wives so...y'know...)
Keighly Sadler is suitably outrageous as the exaggerated, French Dr. Caius. She’s got a really dynamic physicality in the role. Sometimes the humor involves some really sophisticated interplay between the physicality and the exaggeration of the accent. Sometimes it’s as simple as the cheap mustache she’s wearing for the role. A nicely-rendered comic performance.
As always, it’s fun to watch Brittany Curran flit between roles backstage. Here she’s playing three roles including the host of the Garter Inn, Falstaff’s doting page boy Robin and the lovely, young Anne Page. She shrugs in and out of character quite fluidly in an enjoyable mix of characters for a single actor.
Bard and Bourbon’s staging of Merry Wives of Windsor (drunk) runs through Dec. at the Underground Collaborative on 161 W. Wisconsin Ave. For ticket reservations and more, visit Bard and Bourbon online.