Shakespeare productions are typically filled with royalty, strong men and untimely death, so it is rare to see a play penned by the Bard of Avon featuring a middle-class cast, strong women and a lead character wildly pinched instead of poisoned.
St. Scholastica Theatre admirably staged one of these uncharacteristic plays, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” before an opening night audience of about 75 Friday. The 135-minute comedy exposed some bright, young talent, showcased terrific period costuming and offered a delightful grand finale as it worked through the fun but loose script.
Certainly salacious for its 17th century debut, “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” is the only Shakespeare play to feature women in the title role, Merry Renn Vaughan reports in her director’s notes. This feature is what makes the play relevant and timely for 21st century audiences.
Set in Windsor on the River Thames, an aging, pot-bellied rogue named Sir John Falstaff (Mitchell Gertken) stumbles into town and confidently plans to seduce Mistress Ford (Keely Jackson) and Mistress Page (Kendra Manges). Falstaff is not only a lustful braggart, but is also desperate to win money from their well-to-do husbands. The women quickly uncover the plot and decide to humiliate him for their own entertainment.
Mr. Ford (Dawson Ness) is a jealous husband and complicates things when he poses as “Mr. Brook,” asking Falstaff to seduce his wife as a test. Mr. Page (Natalie Eidenschink) is a more trusting soul, distracted by town gentlemen competing for the hand of his daughter.
While the “Merry Wives” share the title role, it is Falstaff who spends the most time on stage. The bearded Gertken, afixed with a prosthetic belly, clearly relishes his role as a lewd lout. “I spy entertainment in her,” he brags, gesturing below the belt, plotting to bed Mistress Ford.
Jackson and Manges share the stage multiple times and together they manage to correctly capture the mischievous friendship. The two earned the biggest laughs of the night during a bedroom scene with Falstaff. As a defensive Jackson is chased around the room, Manges sticks her head out from behind a curtain mugging and eye rolling after each ridiculous Falstaff line.
Of course, Falstaff fails in his quest for the women and they send him off in a filthy laundry bucket to be dumped in the river.
Ness too proves to be a skilled actor. His Mr. Ford tilts and twists across the stage with a face that’s always expressive and alert. Looking like a young, bleach-blonde version of punk rocker Billie Joe Armstrong, Ness pounds a disguised Falstaff with a stick in a jealous rage.
Vaughan and set designer Kevin Seime keep the stage backdrop a simple stone wall, which serves to highlight the stunning period costumes created by Sasha Howell. Ness wears a brilliant red vest and his disguise as Brook features a gold cape. Manges and Jackson wear elegant floor-length dresses and their hair braiding, done by Pat Dennis, reflects a tight friendship and complicated plan to foil Falstaff.
Stage design and costuming plays another key role in the climactic final scene. Green light bathes the stage, effectively turning it into a medieval forest. The entire cast is outfitted in masks and wild greenery as Falstaff, wearing deer horns, is surrounded and pinched into submission, he whines, like “a piece of cheese.”
Poor Falstaff, he gets no respect. Even in the final bows Gertken is pushed out of the way by Jackson and Manges.
Mark Nicklawske reviews music and theater for the News Tribune.
If you go
What: "The Merry Wives of Windsor"
Where: The College of St. Scholastica
When: Nov. 2, Nov. 7-9 at 7:30 p.m.; Nov. 3 and 10 at 2 p.m.
Cost: $15 adults, $10 seniors and students.