Lucy Peacock as Mistress Ford and Laura Condlin as Mistress Page
As a theatrical presence, Geraint Wyn Davies’ Falstaff is playfully physical yet burdened with both bodily weight and the weight of age. He is stiff and sprite at the same time and, as he waddles from scheme to scheme, his paunch claims the man and leads the way. He is also a fellow of impish sensuality. Ever ready with a pelvic thrust, via Wyn Davies he is a creation of subtle versatility who slowly suggests qualities of serene foolishness and of personal dignity.
Of course, Falstaff isn’t the sexually desirable package he assumes he is. Of course, his pursuit of the Merry Wives proves him an ass along the way. But we also sense a man of inadequate powers who is touchingly out of his depth in the world, a world where he struggles to survive but where he also thrives on a manageable adventure and an audience. He takes small bites out of life and in his mind makes them into large chunks. Falstaff is harmless, somewhat ordinary, beautiful in foolishness, and a man of magnificence in his mundane deeds. In other words, Wyn Davies’ Falstaff moves our hearts.
The more dominant thrust (no pun intended) in the play is Tom Rooney’s Master Ford, a cranky and sour fellow who is easily displeased and obsessively jealous of his faithful wife’s suspected wanderings. “A man may be too confident” about his wife’s fidelity he maintains and Ford is quite the opposite, absurdly suspicious at every turn. He is a man decidedly ready to push the Othello button and without his jealousy to drive him on, it seems he would not exist. He is absurd and out of control. Rooney’s insightful take on Ford’s obsessions and frustrations make for a comic gem, especially when we sense him to be potentially nasty at his core and a man foolishly or helplessly consumed by doubt as he thrives on jealousy.
Lucy Peacock as Mistress Ford, is wide-eyed and breathless, delighted to have Mistress Page as cohort in a counter scheme against Falstaff. She is an inherently funny dynamo of a woman. Laura Condlin’s Mistress Page is a woman who almost implies a country twang, a woman of some poise who seizes the chance to go over the top with some mischief and intrigue which she savours. Christopher Prentice as the bumbling and hopelessly clueless Master Slender gives us genuine delight with his repertoire of facial contortions that punctuate each word he speaks. James Blendick as his exasperated uncle is hilarious each time he reveals a crack in his staid composure.
Frank Galati’s production feels secure and comfortable with its low key and not too bawdy dynamism and its sensitivity to textual potential. At times these people look too sophisticated for “townsfolk” and designer Robert Perdziola’s decidedly upper class attire is such that one might see on Austin’s Mr. Darcy instead of Page and Ford et al. What Galati and Perdziola achieve is a leisurely country feeling in which events are often relished simply as a diversion. Even Ford’s lunatic jealousy seems taken as a matter of course, although director and actor do suggest here a truly disturbing undercurrent in human behaviour. As much as we are moved to fondness for Falstaff, we are scared by the unsaid in Ford.
The whole production is delivered in a usually articulate, measured and musically spoken fashion that supports the director’s leisurely pace. The setting is functional yet atmospheric, makes for flowing movement and strategic stage placement of characters, and is imaginatively suggestive of more detail than it actually contains. On occasion, a character may not emerge far enough off the page (another pun unintended) or a voice of fuzzy tonality might not ring to the festival theatre’s ceiling but remain somewhat muffled below, but on the whole this production entertains solidly without a glitch.
As a play, The Merry Wives of Windsor offers characters of some complexity, stock creations, and, best of all, characters with a foot in each camp. In this production some are easily fleshed out into entertaining and individualized characterizations and some entertain us well as far as they can. There are running gags at the expense of say the French and some redundancy in Falstaff’s comeuppance. If Falstaff hiding in the laundry basket is a classic situation (see Verdi), the beating by Ford doesn’t really offer much that is new or interesting. For the most part, however, there is much comic potential delightfully realized in Galati’s production, say in Falstaff’s attempted come on to Mistress Ford.
Where both play and production shine comically is in pairings: Falstaff and the disguised Master Ford discussing Ford’s wife, Falstaff with Mistress Ford choking back her laughter, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page eagerly conspiring to get back at the two timing seducer Falstaff, and Shallow’s exercise in futility as he helps the very challenged Slender to woo are some. Falstaff by himself and Ford by himself are each thoroughly engaging, each one bountiful with human failing, to be sure, but very human and theatrically splendid. For this production, we sit back and laugh often and well.