The Merry Wives of Windsor

By William Shakespeare
June 27 to August 9, 2014
Mary Rippon Outdoor Theatre
  • Mare Trevathan as Mistress Page, Michael Winters as Falstaff and Vanessa Morosco as Mistress Ford
  • Mare Trevathan as Mistress Page, Michael Winters as Falstaff and Vanessa Morosco as Mistress Ford
Why, then the world 's mine oyster.
Directed by Seth Panitch

Falstaff, one of Shakespeare’s most enduring comic characters, is at the heart of one of the Bard’s greatest laugh-out-loud farces. Pursuing the amorous attentions of two married English ladies, the pompous, rotund knight doesn’t let their mischievous pranking swerve him from his quest. Sure, he’s been punk’d, but isn’t it a sign of affection?

This fresh new production will be set in a Catskills resort in the early 1960s. When Falstaff rolls up with his crew, it’ll be a hilarious mashup of Dirty Dancing and one of Shakespeare’s most popular comic plays.

Season tickets and single tickets on sale now.

Date Time
Preview: Friday June 27 8:00 pm
Closed
Opening Night: Saturday June 28 8:00 pm
Closed
Saturday July 5 8:00 pm
Closed
Sunday July 20 6:30 pm
Closed
Tuesday July 22 6:30 pm
Friday July 25 8:00 pm
Saturday July 26 8:00 pm
Tuesday July 29 6:30 pm
Saturday August 2 8:00 pm
Thursday August 7 8:00 pm
Closing: Saturday August 9 8:00 pm

As good as it gets?

"That which cannot be eschewed, must be embraced."
Ther Merry Wives of Windsor; Act V, Scene 5

"I would never want to belong to any club that would accept someone like me for a member."
Groucho Marx

Although there is scant historical evidence that William Shakespeare and Groucho Marx ever met to compare notes on the human condition, one cannot help but see the similarities in their respective philosophies, and their propensity for wearing facial hair. Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor thrums with characters unprepared to accept the clubs to which they are destined. The central question of the play, then, is whether or not they are prepared to trade the seductive dreams of the unachievable for the richer, more real landscape of the already achieved.

The Merry Wives of Windsor is actually three plays in one: a raucous Italian sex farce, a young-love-denied story, and a final festive masque, filled with contemporary references, fairies, and perhaps even more terrifying, child performers. The challenge for any modern production is finding the unity between these stories. For Shakespeare, that fascia was at the middle-class world of Windsor as he lovingly remembered it—a world very close to the Stratford of his youth, filled with characters that both he and his audience would know intimately.  

It has been our task to seek a framework that our audience can relate to, a world that, for us, glimmers with a similarly nostalgic sheen in our collective rearview mirrors. And so, we begin our play in 1962, at the Mount Windsor Hotel and Resort in the Catskill Mountains. We begin with the aging comedian “Sir” John Falstaff, the Crusading Knight of the Round Waistband, who arrives fresh from his banishment, not from the court of Henry V, but from the ”court” of the national comedy circuit. We begin with the “Merry Wives” themselves, who appear to us anything but merry—both hesitating at their life’s crossroads. We begin with the soulful music of 1962, the shrinking bikinis, the towering hairstyles, and, of course, the dancing, both “dirty” and otherwise.

Most importantly, we begin with the long-cherished dreams of this functionally dysfunctional family—dreams deferred long enough that each character has come to the crisis that always strikes the mediocre and the merely content: “Is this as good as it gets?” It is impossible not to admire John Falstaff as he thrusts himself “once more unto the breach” of the fortress of that question for one last shot at romantic immortality. Falstaff is, in many ways, our crusading knight, valiantly fighting our battle to somehow bridge the chasm between the abject terror of that question, and the serenity derived from answering it, finally, in the affirmative. 

Or, to paraphrase Groucho Marx, “What cannot be eschewed, must be embraced…”

Seth Panitch, director

Setting: 1962, Mount Windsor Hotel, Catskills Mountain Resort

Sir John Falstaff arrives at Windsor, hoping to improve his fortunes by seducing married women, thereby gaining access to their husbands’ funds. Mistress Ford and Mistress Page compare his identical love letters and plot revenge. Meanwhile, three rivals compete to marry the lovely (and wealthy) Anne Page.

Falstaff brags about his impending conquest of Mistress Ford to his new friend Brook (a jealous Ford in disguise). Later, Mistress Ford has Falstaff carried out in a basket of dirty laundry and dumped in a muddy ditch when her husband arrives unexpectedly. 

Anne’s suitor Fenton laments that despite their love, her father will never approve of their marriage. Meanwhile, Mistress Quickly delivers a new invitation from Mistress Ford to Falstaff, which he accepts despite having been tossed in the river the last time. Again he boasts to Brook/Ford about his narrow escape and new opportunity, and again Ford arrives home unexpectedly, determined to expose his wife’s adultery. When he fails to find Falstaff in the laundry—Falstaff having escaped disguised as an old fat woman—the wives reveal their prank to their husbands. Ford, ashamed of his jealous behavior, vows to never mistrust his wife again. The four plot a final trick to play on Falstaff. 

Falstaff meets Mistress Page and Mistress Ford at night, but they are interrupted by townspeople disguised as witches and fairies, who converge on a terrified Falstaff. The hoax is revealed, and Falstaff expresses remorse at his bad behavior and is forgiven. Page announces that Slender has eloped with Anne, but is contradicted by Mistress Page, who instructed Anne to marry Doctor Caius instead. Both grooms return empty-handed, and Anne soon arrives with her new husband Fenton, having thwarted both her parents. Page relents now that the deed is done and accepts Fenton into the family.

Heidi Schmidt, dramaturg

The Merry Middle Class of Windsor

The Merry Wives of Windsor has long been considered an anomaly in Shakespeare’s writing. It contains a higher percentage of prose than any other Shakespeare play and is his only comedy set in England. It has been praised as a farce, dismissed as a farce, identified with Roman or Greek New Comedy, labeled a comedy of forgiveness, a citizen comedy, an English comedy, and a middle-class comedy.

The term middle class is perhaps misapplied—it didn’t exist in Shakespeare’s lifetime—but the characters in Merry Wives are distinctly of middle rank, or the middle orders. Windsor is populated by masters and mistresses, not lords and ladies. The only character claiming high birth is Fenton, and he is suspected of being a gold-digger and reprobate by Anne’s father.

Scholars have suggested that Windsor in the play is a close relative of Stratford, Shakespeare’s hometown, and that Merry Wives calls on his own life experience more than any other play he wrote. This may well be true. He was the son of a glove maker whose first successes were as an actor, then as a poet, and eventually as a shareholder in one of the major theater companies of his day. Shakespeare was a business owner as much as he was an artist. Like Page in Merry Wives, he had wealth but no discernable rank or title, though he did purchase a family coat of arms; the crest featured a falcon, an image Shakespeare had used elsewhere as a symbol for ambition. Despite his financial success, Shakespeare’s middle rank remained firmly underneath the upper classes in the social order and power structure of his day. 

This was not the case in the United States in the early 1960s, where the middle class dominated the electorate and enjoyed a long run of postwar prosperity. Median income rose 50 percent during the 1950s, more people were graduating both high school and college, and the growth of suburbs brought homeownership within reach to an ever-growing segment of the population, who could now afford a sensible car, televisions, and the occasional family vacation (to places like the Catskills).

This widespread prosperity did not last. Today, pundits worry about endangered middle class. Sprawling homes, luxury cars, big screen televisions, and family vacations are purchased with substantial household debt, resulting in the appearance of an upper class lifestyle without the increased wages that 1962 seemed to promise. For most Americans in the middle, our aspirations have exceeded our means.

Heidi Schmidt, dramaturg