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Monday, July 2, 2012

OSF 2012: The Very Merry Wives of Windsor, Iowa (play review)


In this re-imagined version of one of Shakespeare's less stellar plays, Alison Carey has taken what I've always thought was a silly, barely defensible low comedy (which some believe was dashed off in a hurry) and translated it for early 21st Century audiences as a thoroughly contemporary and very funny light satire--all the while remaining wonderfully true to the original. Like the best sort of fan art (but at the level of world drama), it celebrates the original work with full understanding, even as it goes beyond it in a way that would delight the original author. As a period piece (that period) this play has never held any charm for me; but as a period piece (this period), at least in Carey's hands--and those of the company as well, of course, all of them brilliant--the play is funny, and surprisingly gentle. Out with the old that no longer works, and in with the new that does!

The incomparable David Kelley returns as Falstaff -in new clothes but knavish as ever
As you have probably read elsewhere (and if you have, you might want to skip this paragraph), Carey takes the awful Falstaff, a fallen knight out to resurrect his fortune by cheating local women, and makes him a Senator at the Iowa caucus. This opens the way for all kinds of satirical references to the knavery of our current political situation and the absurdity of many currently hot topics. Carey takes the marriage plot, in which Falstaff attempts to seduce married women, and recreates it in the context of gay marriage. And she takes the Elizabethan town of Windsor, England and turns it into Windsor, Iowa; in this wholesome and good-hearted context of the American "heartland," the fair-minded people go overboard in their embrace of same-sex marriage. The merry wives have their revenge, in a particularly Iowa State Fair way -- with environmental benefits. These alterations add a great deal to the original material, all of it utterly delightful, and the play is happy rather than cruel. I mean to say--cheerleaders! And they're really good, too.
Through a kind of theatrical alchemy, the earlier play is not changed but transmuted. The Elizabethan Stage sprouts rows of corn. The Shakespeare is still there: we see the over the top characters, verbal fireworks, and plot complications; the human foibles exposed and dissected even as moral standards of the time are given their required due; the mean tricks played by, and on, even meaner characters--and nothing is lost in this translation. As I said about Bill Rauch's brilliant "rock and roll" version of Midsummer Night's Dream the magical summer that one took Ashland by storm, I feel that Shakespeare would have loved seeing his play done this way. In fact he'd have been doing it himself if he lived now. I'm really quite certain of this. He would be reveling in the relative cultural freedom we have these days, and he would be pushing all the boundaries back even further. He would be offending and outraging people right and left. And his humor would be of our time, just as it was of his.
Slender-Shallow, a modern lesbian chainsaw sculptor
Probably to fully appreciate what Carey has done here it would help to be at least a little familiar with the original play, and from the comments I heard during Intermission and later at my hotel, many in the audience did not even take this first step. Yet even if you've never seen any Shakespeare before, this play surely must be very funny on its own terms; after all, Carey has all of Shakespeare's genius to play with. It would also help to be reasonably comfortable with gay marriage and know some lesbians, in order to appreciate the reversals of situations and values that Carey cannily exploits.

(For example, I overheard one woman who, in the context of saying she'd enjoyed the play, comment that some aspects of the production "didn't make any sense at all, like homosexual marriage in Iowa." She didn't know that Iowa has a strong civil rights record and passed the first gay marriage law and has upheld it ever since, even under Republicans [see, I did my homework]. Another theatergoer didn't see "why they had to add a German doctor - that's just too goofy" - clearly not knowing Shakespeare had written a French doctor.)  And then, judging by the fact that the play is considered "controversial' or off-putting by some people, clearly there are still plenty of people around who just aren't ready for a comedy that takes for granted the level of sophistication about gay culture present now in much of Middle America. Finally, as for those who say they have many gay friends but still consider this comedy "too much"--well, no comedy pleases all tastes. I'm glad they're all being pushed out of their comfort zone just a little [insert cartoon of me rubbing hands together in glee here].

As for myself, I loved almost everything about this play and so did most of the audience, most of the time, judging by the nonstop laughter, though a lot of people seemed to have mixed feelings ultimately and there wasn't quite the fervent kind of standing ovation most OSF productions enjoy. Well, that's their problem, and their loss, I guess. As OSF actor Jeremy Johnson said in a Park Talk on the same day that I saw the play, a production that offends nobody is boring; if some people leave at intermission, that means they're being challenged and OSF is doing its job. 

In short, if you want to see how Shakespearean comedy, in the right hands, can actually work, come to OSF this year. Bravo!


kim said...

This is the worst play that I EVER saw at OSF. There were a few funny lines, yes, but for the most part, it was just ridiculous! Both couples who were sitting on either side of me and my daughter did not return after intermission, and a goodly number of us left without applauding -- the first time I have ever done so! Horrible!!!

Chrism929 said...

Thanks for commenting Kim - too bad you were disappointed. My review and your comment are a great example of the sometimes heated audience reaction to the play, though some people I know simply enjoyed it well enough. When I saw it, the people on my right did not return after the intermission, but the people on my left never left their seats because they were having so much fun discussing it.