Old Globe’s Falstaffian comedy ‘Merry Wives’ to be re-set in 1950s sit-com-style America
The Shakespeare play is about a greedy bon vivant who seduces married women in an attempt to steal their fortunes
It’s been suggested that Queen Elizabeth I was so charmed by William Shakespeare’s shamelessly degenerate Sir John Falstaff character in the “Henry” historical plays that she requested, perhaps demanded, to see more of him, and fast.
The Bard responded with a Falstaff-centered comedy, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” written in under two weeks’ time.
“As a result, he just had some fun with it,” said James Vásquez, who’s directing the Old Globe’s production of “Merry Wives” on the outdoor Lowell Davies stage. “It may not be one of his most well thought out, but I think that gives an audience the chance to just sit back and laugh. Right now, we’ll take that.”
“The Merry Wives of Windsor” finds Falstaff, to be played in this Globe production by Tom McGowan, having the tables turned on him when he — strictly out of financial self-interes — tries simultaneously wooing the equally wealthy Mistress Ford (Angela Pierce) and Mistress Page (Ruibo Qian). Both are married.
Vásquez recalled that his very first professional job out of drama school was on “Merry Wives” in a “Shakespeare in the Park” production in New York City. “I remember all those years ago (29 to be exact) laughing and laughing,” he said.
That “Merry Wives” production was set in the Old West.
“Reading it through this time,” Vásquez said, “I couldn’t get the idea of Lucy and Ethel out of my head, these two wives who for all intents and purposes are keeping their households going and yet finding time to step forward and get their voices heard.”
This “I Love Lucy” connection led Vasquez to explore that and other TV situation comedies of the 1950s like “The Donna Reed Show” and “Leave It To Beaver.”
“The more I started researching the sitcoms of that time,” Vásquez said, “the archetypes from them began presenting themselves in ‘Merry Wives.’ Women very much had their ‘place’ in the 1950s. Their home base was the kitchen and being the happy homemaker. It was also in the ‘50s that the Civil Rights Movement started and women stepped up and women said there was more beyond the kitchen.
“We’re really hoping to celebrate the female identifying voice in our story and give them the power that they know they have in the first place.”
The result is this “Merry Wives of Windsor” will be set in those changing 1950s.
“I like to say our little town of Windsor is the most ordinary town that you will find in America,” said Vásquez, “and then the extraordinary begins to happen when Falstaff arrives.”
Vásquez is working with a large cast in this comedy, which by design is always on the edge of being madcap. Experience has given him confidence about reconciling “the beautiful freedom to just celebrate and sing to the stars” and not getting “dangerous and out of control.”
“I like to encourage people to dangle off the cliff while always being truthful and not falling off the cliff,” he said.
Vásquez, who annually directs the Globe’s “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” during the holiday season, will do so again beginning in November. In between “Merry Wives” and the “Grinch,” he’ll be at the helm of Two River Theater’s remounting of the Old Globe’s 2021 production of “Hair” in New Jersey, then in New York workshopping a new ‘80s jukebox musical.
‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’
When: Preview performances Sunday through Aug. 4 Opens Aug, 5 and runs through Sept. 3. Showtimes: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays
Where: Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, The Old Globe, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park, San Diego
Tickets: $29 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623
Coddon is a freelance writer.
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