Jennifer Pennington, Brian Hinds, & Abigail Maupin in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photo: Zachary Burrell
The Merry Wives of Windsor
By William Shakespeare
Edited by Gregory Maupin
Directed by Matt Wallace
A review by Alicia Fireel
Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Alicia Fireel. All rights reserved.
Ask any room of Shakespeare nerds what Shakespeare’s worst play is, and if they don’t all say The Merry Wives of Windsor, they will at the very least say it is one of the worst. And yet, as The Kentucky Shakespeare Festival’s current production demonstrates, if Merry Wives is Shakespeare’s worst play, it’s still better than the vast majority of plays written in the English language. It’s funny, intricate, and full of ridiculous long-form puns; it drags a little in the second act and does make one appreciate the complexity of a play like Twelfth Night, but it’s still an excellent evening of entertainment.
Often referred to (by me) as “Shakespeare’s Episode One,” Merry Wives is a prequel of sorts to the beloved and much-lauded Henriad, allegedly written at the behest of Queen Elizabeth who, upset that her favorite character Falstaff had been killed off, demanded Shakespeare bring him back (Which I guess makes Falstaff the Phantom Menace? Darth Falstaff?). It’s been 30 years since Ky Shakes produced the play resulting from Good Queen Bess’s demand.
The action circles around Falstaff attempting to simultaneously woo two married women, Missus Page and Missus Ford, in order to squeeze their husbands for cash. What he doesn’t realize is that Ford and Page are aware of his plot, and are merrily leading him on one fool’s errand after another.
If the script is so (relatively) bad, why did KY Shakes produce it? Because they’ve just finished an incredible journey through the nine History plays Shakespeare wrote that cover the string of succession wars that rocked England from the late 1300s when Richard II was deposed and executed, to 1485 when the reign of Richard III ended. Hopefully, you all appreciate that very few companies perform the entire cycle, let alone in order.
Henry IV, Part 1 falls towards the beginning of that cycle. There, Falstaff is a complex and nuanced character. It’s easy to see why Elizabeth wanted more. Falstaff in Merry Wives is a shallow, drunken dunce chasing money, sex, and booze. In KY Shakes’s production, Falstaff comes courtesy of Brian Hinds, one of the best actors in Louisville. His Falstaff is a great mix of detestable and relatable, and Hinds finds what little meat there is in the Falstaff of Merry Wives, allowing us to at least see a little of ourselves in the arrogance and self-delusion. In the last few years we’ve mostly seen Hinds in serious roles (at which he also excels), characters such as Cassius in Julius Caesar, and Macbeth in, you know, Macbeth. It’s great to once again see him engage in full-on foolishness. We never quite root for his Falstaff, but we certainly pity him, though it never slows us from laughing at Hinds’s broad and bawdy humor. Hinds also reliably struts his sillier Shakes-skills with Late Night Shakes.
The cast has the same wealth of talent frequently displayed by this company. Excellent turns abound from Jon Huffman’s pompous french doctor to Mollie Murk’s thick-headed servant. Gregory Maupin appears as Mister Ford, playing husband to his real-life spouse Abigail Maupin. It’s always a distinct joy to see them together on stage. BeeBee Patillo has almost zero lines, but you should spend some time watching her be silently hilarious in the background. Nick Willis and Ashley Nicole Cabrera deserve extra praise; their ebullience and joie de vivre make the secondary love story between Anne Page and Fenton enjoyable, despite the fact that script-wise it’s the weakest part of the play.
While Hinds’ performance is great, and the supporting cast shines, it’s the titular wives, Missus Ford (Abigail Maupin) and Missus Page (Jennifer Pennington), that lead the production, providing a large share of the laughs, as well as most of the impetus of the plot.
Maupin and Pennington have their dials turned up to eleven on silliness, as befits their parts, but there is also a great satisfaction for the audience in watching Page and Ford be the smartest people in the play. Pennington and Maupin manage the frequent shifts between silly, smart, and sassy dexterously. Their friendship imbues the piece with a little bit of warmth and heart. For an extra treat, see this season’s Richard III, where these two actors play dueling deposed queens and verbally tear each other to absolute shreds.
Many of the finer points of Maupin and Pennington’s performances, as well other small interactions between the various couples throughout the play, quietly illustrate director Matt Wallace’s dexterity. He highlights portions of the play that maximize the autonomy and free will of Page and Ford. For example, in the final scene of the play, a husband brags that “He tonight shall lie with [his] wife.” It’s a line that easily could have been performed as a command, a moment to reassert male dominance at the end of a play led by the actions of women. So, basically, a man saying “Hey, I own your body and want some sex. Gimme.” But instead of a statement, the line is posed to his wife and partner as a question, essentially, “Hey, would you like to have sex?” It felt good for the play to end with the merry wives having autonomy over their own bodies, instead of having their right to choose taken away from them. Who would have guessed? In the summer of 2022, Merry Wives is actually relevant.
Last thoughts: A special shout out to actor Tom Luce who, unless I’m mangling my Kentucky Shakespeare history, is the only cast member who also appeared in their last production of Merry Wives, 30 years ago. And a request: Since most of KY Shakes seasons include at least one history play, next can we please have a production of King John, which explores a chapter of English history roughly 177 years prior to the events of Richard II. Pleeeeease?!?
The Merry Wives of Windsor runs until July 24. Check Kentucky Shakespeare’s website for specific dates. Kentucky Shakespeare’s shows in Central park are free. (And have been for 62 years and counting).
Featuring Ashley Nicole Cabrera, Brian Hinds, Jon Huffman, Justin M. Jackson, Georgett Kleier, Tom Luce, Abigail Bailey Maupin, Gregory Maupin, Braden McCampbell. Keith McGill, Molly Murk, Brittany “BeeBee” Patillo, Jennifer Pennington, Tony Reimonenq III, Neill Robertson, Tyler Tate, Shaquille Towns, Kyle Ware, & Nick Wills
The Merry Wives of Windsor
June 30 – July 3, July 5 – 10, July 14, 17, 21 & 24, 2022
Shakespeare Festival in Central Park
C. Douglas Ramey Amphitheater
1340 S. Fourth St.
Louisville, KY 40208
Admission is free. Everyone is welcome, including pets.
Food trucks open at 6:30 p.m.; Will’s Tavern begins serving at 7:00 p.m.
Pre-Show begins at 7:15 p.m., with the main stage production at 8:00 p.m.
Alicia Fireel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen them around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. They are a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen them stuffing their face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When they aren’t too busy writing short stories, they blog at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com. Alicia is currently an MFA candidate in the University of Louisville’s Department of Theatre Arts.