WINONA — They made merry in Winona last Friday when the 2014 Great River Shakespeare Festival opened with a delightful production of “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
Although generally not considered among the first, or even second, order of Shakespeare’s works, “The Merry Wives of Windsor” offers plenty of opportunity for light-hearted entertainment. And the folks at the Great River Festival don’t have to be begged to have some fun now and then. The play, directed by Paul Barnes, founder of the festival, is presented as a slice of vaudeville-style showmanship, with songs, asides to the audience and broad humor.
Shifting Shakespeare out of the 16th century and into more modern times doesn’t always work as well as it was imagined in the planning sessions. In this case, though, the festival’s “Merry Wives” holds together, in large part because the styling, the acting, the music and the design are so consistently excellent.
One marvels at the creativity on display, starting with the concept developed by Barnes. The set, designed by R. Eric Stone, features large photographs of historic buildings in Winona that, while not the least reminiscent of Windsor (of castle fame), reinforce the setting of the turn of the 20th century. Songs, including “Daisy Bell (Bicycle Built for Two),” “Shine on Harvest Moon” and “Moonlight Bay” also hark back to that era.
The play opens with a lively set piece in which all the characters are introduced to the audience, and in which their personality quirks are quickly made evident.
Among the characters, there’s portly Falstaff, who fancies himself a womanizer of some repute and who pursues the merry wives. Festival regular Jonathan Gillard Daly, made up to look twice his normal size, portrays Falstaff as a lovable rogue.
The wives, played by Tarah Flanagan and Sigrid Sutter, engage in minuet-like movements as they bait a trap for Falstaff. Steve Hendrickson, as a suspicious husband, pushes the stylized acting of melodrama right up to the edge.
Festival regulars include the duo of Chris Mixon and Christopher Gerson in roles that allow them to use expressions, ticks and movements to draw humor out of their characters, as well as Michael Fitzpatrick and Andrew Carlson, who comes equipped with an almost unintelligible, but awkwardly funny, French accent.
This “Merry Wives” is for the Will-phobes among us. It’s Shakespeare, it’s silly and it’s fun. Who could have guessed?