You learn a lot about the level of commitment of a company of actors—to say nothing of the commitment of the audience enjoying them—when both are willing to engage in the rain because, as the Bard himself would say, “the play’s the thing.” Thus, as rain began falling during Act II of First Folio’s opening night of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” the cast took no mind of it, and audience members simply covered up or took out umbrellas.
This went on for a time before the show was interrupted since, as First Folio managing director and show producer David Rice put it over the loudspeakers, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a small squall that will pass quickly, please come into the mansion until it does.” The “mansion” is none other than the former home of coal baron Francis S. Peabody, a delightfully opulent environment to come into out of the rain. Yes, the powers that be have sophisticated weather-tracking devices and have storm evasion and the safety of the venues’ performers and audiences down to a science.
The storm indeed subsided, the play resumed and continued past Act III and into Act IV before rain returned, this time more aggressively with lightning, sirens and a tornado watch, at which point the show was immediately and understandably called. What a moving tribute to the persistence and heart of all concerned that the audience nonetheless, while getting wet and risking lightning and high winds, gave the performers a rousing curtain call as if the show had been completed.
All were invited back to another performance. I was able to return the following evening after another performance that, fortunately, landed me back virtually to the moment in Act IV where the play had been stopped, where Sir John Falstaff (Brian McCartney) is about to emerge in drag in an attempt to escape the wrath of husbands whose wives he is attempting to court.
Falstaff, of course, is one of the Bard’s most beloved characters, initially having appeared in “Henry IV Part I” and “Henry IV Part II” and making such an impression, that the story goes that no less than Elizabeth I had asked for a royal command follow-up comedy concerning his exploits.
Leaving aside that the Falstaff of the history plays is a more fleshed-out character, what makes a great Falstaff in “Merry Wives” is how much the actor portraying him can convince us this is the same character despite the many indignities Falstaff is made to suffer in “Merry Wives,” all of his own making, of course. To put it bluntly, Falstaff must not be slapstick for its own sake. This is a highly respected and charming individual, it must not be a caricature, which too often, it is.
Thankfully, for McCartney, playing his first-ever Falstaff, that was never a concern. Curious that director Nick Sandys decided to go with a younger and less rotund Falstaff and, for that matter, younger “wives” as well with Mistress Page (Patrice Egleston) and Mistress Ford (Lydia Berger Gray).
This served the text well, as Falstaff is less of a buffoon and there are moments where this production dares to suggest that anything might be possible. That is crucial to make the play work: you have to accept at least the possibility that Falstaff is capable of pulling off these seductions had his own bloated ego and lack of self-awareness not tripped him up.
You also cannot beat the Act V night forest scene when it is night and you are surrounded by a forest, complete with the moon rising over the proceedings. Kudos to just dimming the lights and allowing nature to do its work, quite effectively. Here, too, Falstaff usually appears so overdone in his stag apparel that the mere sight of him becomes funny whereas this production takes a more subdued approach, merely a few upward twigs in his hat.
True, “Merry Wives” is not one of the Bard’s best efforts. Yes, I would rather see Verdi’s “Falstaff” or even Nicolai’s operatic setting any day. Nonetheless, when its true charms are allowed to shine through as they are here, it is a most enjoyable experience. When all are invited to retire to a country fire at the Ford house at the end, you really wish there were one to retire to with these people. (Dennis Polkow)
First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st St. & Rt. 83, Oak Brook. (630)986-8067. firstfolio.org. $26 – $37. Through August 10.