Corrections or additions?
This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the August 6, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
`Merry Wives of (West) Windsor’
Four hundred years ago, William Shakespeare wrote a
play he was sure would set all London laughing. "The Merry Wives
of Windsor," the Bard’s only comedy set solely in England, features
more prose than verse, much of it in colloquial dialogue. There are
topical references to the goings on of city and court, and a couple
of foreign buffoons thrown in to bear the brunt of the English humor.
Now the Princeton Rep Company has taken up Shakespeare’s populist
cause with its own, authentic but updated "Merry Wives of (West)
Windsor," where the eponymous West Windsor — as well as Princeton
and Central Jersey — takes center stage. This entertaining production,
directed by Victoria Liberatori, is presented at the Pettoranello
Gardens Amphitheater, Fridays through Sundays at 8 p.m to August 17.
There is an additional free performance on the Green at Palmer Square
this Saturday, August 9, at 2 p.m.
Spotlighting both virtues and vices of its chosen locale, the production
was initially greeted by returning rains that washed out both dress
rehearsal and preview (July 31 and August 1). But when the first preview
finally took place on Saturday, August 2, it was under ideal conditions:
a warm (but not too warm) summer evening under the stars, with the
first cicadas audible in the woods, and our Garden State mosquitoes
nowhere in evidence. This is the second comedy of the company’s third
full summer season, following on the heels of July’s "The Comedy
"The Merry Wives" tells the story of Sir John Falstaff’s persistent
and unsuccessful wooing of two genteel wives of West Windsor —
Mistress Page and Mistress Ford. Although the ostensive topic is "Falstaff
in love," the old lush aims to use the lovely women as a pathway,
not to love, but for access to their husbands’ substantial bank accounts.
Setting the tone and preparing its audience for this "Merry Wives’"
torrent of targeted insider jokes is Tim Amrhein’s set design that
includes a perfect replica of the platform of Princeton Junction train
station, parts of the Nassau Inn Tap Room, and a set of smart pastel-colored
townhouses in our own West Windsor. Pam Hersh of Princeton University
was the first celebrity guest to appear on the station platform amidst
the hubbub of a morning commute, followed on Sunday night by Mayor
Shing-fu Hsueh of West Windsor. Mayors Phyllis Marchand and Marvin
Reed, and other area notables are slated for cameo appearances.
Marking the pulse of commuter life in Central New Jersey
is Marty Moss-Coane of the WHYY’s "Radio Times." Moss-Coane’s
witty voice-overs, written by John Timpane, serve as scene transitions
as well as keeping Shakespeare’s "Windsor" setting up-to-date
and close to home. Some of her funnier topics include ongoing "Town
and Gown" arguments such as "When am I in West Windsor and
when am I in Princeton?" and the question of "Smart or Beautiful?"
in which she promotes interviews with some of Princeton’s "homely
smart people" and "the beautiful dummies from town."
The young and decidedly corpulent Dennis McLaughlin plays this modern
bearded Falstaff (whom Shakespeare describes as "the old fat fellow"
and "Flemish drunkard"), a latter-day theatrical producer.
Hanging out at the Nassau Inn and planning his next big budget show,
"Cape May 08204," we know that few, if any, upscale West Windsor
wives will fix on him as their love interest.
The Windsor Wives who are the target of Falstaff’s scheme, Mistresses
Alice Ford and Meg Page, are well-played by Nell Gwynn and Victoria
Stilwell. These smart women know the score and change outfits at every
opportunity, from chic silk Capri pants to shorts and visors for their
fitness power walks.
Although the duo has matters in hand, their out-of-touch husbands
manage to complicate the plot. The insanely jealous Master Frank Ford
(Donald Kimmel) suspects his wife of every dark deed, while the cynical
George Page (Van Zeiler) is preoccupied with his desire to see his
daughter wedded to a rich, well-landed idiot. Some of the funniest
scenes feature Kimmel as the jealous Ford going undercover, disguised
as the nerdish Master Brook, to catch the lecherous braggart Falstaff
Page’s eligible daughter, Anne Page, nicely portrayed by Karen Freer,
is the object of almost every male character’s desire. She is the
sort of smart and spunky young woman any Jersey family would consider
an asset. Anne’s most ardent suitor is Master Fenton (Michael Sorvino),
a Princeton graduate who sports a black and orange silk tie.
Most effective in their scenes of broad humor are Richard Bourg as
Robert Shallow, judge and justice of the peace, and his clueless nephew
Abraham Slender, played with endearing expressivity by the tall, slender,
Chihuahua-toting actor Christopher Franciosa. Bourg, last season’s
King Lear, offers a contrasting comic side in his role as Shallow,
justice of the County of Gloucester (this critic’s former legal residence).
Appearing here as a Justice of the Peace of the County of Mercer,
he arrives on the scene, with nephew in tow, and the complaint that
Falstaff has "beaten my men, killed my deer, and broken open my
Among the play’s more clownish of the characters are the parson Sir
Hugh Evans-Wiswesser (Dan Matisa), here smartly transformed from the
Welsh character of the original (lose the Welsh jokes!) to a stock
German. His companion is the phlegmatic and utterly nutty French physician,
Doctor Caius (Jeffrey Guyton) — what better moment to make hay
with some of those funny 400-year-old French jokes.
Princeton Rep’s strategy of placing Equity actors in lead roles with
other professionals and actors-in-training in supporting roles makes
for a dynamic but sometimes uneven performing standard. The numerous
company includes Falstaff’s trio of henchmen (here called "associates"),
Bardolph, Pistol, and Nym played by Matthew Morgan, Henning Hegland,
and Chuck McMahon, and nephew Robin (Kelly Forman).
Go-between Mistress Quickly (Carolyn Smith) is a key
character who plays all sides of the fence, pocketing bribes and favors
from all concerned, while working to win Anne’s hand for her own employer,
Doctor Caius. Matthew Morgan plays the madcap host of the Garter Room
at the Nassau Inn, a familiar-looking bar hung with photos of notables
Bill Bradley, Brooke Shields, Jimmy Stewart, and smiling Princeton
commencement speaker Bill Clinton.
Since Shakespeare chose deer as one of his play’s recurrent themes,
Liberatori effortlessly moves the climactic scene from Windsor Forest
to the imperiled Mercer Oak. And instead of being frightened out of
his lecherous ways by a band of woodland sprites, Falstaff finds himself
facing the same awful fate as Princeton’s resident deer.
As the tortured plot winds to a close, spouses, rivals, enemies, and
lovers are reconciled just as Shakespeare determined they should be.
The play closes with his cautionary remark, probably as helpful today
as it was four centuries ago: "Money buys lands, and wives are
sold by fate."
— Nicole Plett
Pettoranello Amphitheater, Community Park North, Route 206 at Mountain
Avenue, 609-921-3682. Free; $10 donation requested. Fridays, Saturdays,
and Sundays at 8 p.m. through Sunday, August 17.
Palmer Square, 609-921-3682. Free performance on the green. Picnics
available for sale. Saturday, August 9, 2 p.
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.