U-M’s "Merry Wives of Windsor" brings Falstaffian wit to the holiday season


University of Michigan's production of The Merry Wives of Windsor

Left to right: Mallory Avnet (Mistress Page), Liam Loomer (Sir John Falstaff), and Christiana Moyle (Mistress Ford) in the University of Michigan Dept. of Theatre & Drama’s production of Shakespeare’s most popular comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Photo by Peter Smith Photography.

The story is that Queen Elizabeth I was so delighted by William Shakespeare’s raffish Sir John Falstaff in the historical plays Henry IV, Part 1 and 2, that she asked the playwright to give the rotund knight a play of his own, a love story for an aging rogue.

The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare’s only farce, has been a hit ever since. The University of Michigan’s Department of Theatre hopes to brighten the holiday season with its production of the play, Dec. 7-10 at the Power Center, under the direction of John Neville-Andrews, a professor of theatre at UM.

“I looked at the season and it’s a very serious and somewhat political season, so I thought around Christmas time we needed something humorous, funny, and enjoyable; hopefully a broad comedy for the public to come see at Power Center,” Neville-Andrews said.

Neville-Andrews said he has a particular fondness for this play.

“I’ve directed it a few times and I was lucky enough to have another crack at it,” he said, “I’ve come at it with a very different approach.”

Neville-Andrews said he is making the comedy broader than in his previous productions.

“I must confess there are some anachronisms that I have put in,” he said. “I’ve indulged myself a little bit. I’m hoping that will enhance the comedy and people will respond to that and not say, 'Well, you’re not doing Shakespeare, people weren’t like that in the 16th century.' So, I’m not doing Shakespeare in the most traditional way.”

Merry Wives of Windsor is far from the serious intentions of the Henry plays, which concern the maturing of young Prince Hal on his way to becoming Henry V. Here the action moves from London to the smaller community of Windsor, in the shadows of Windsor Castle. Falstaff and his pals from London move their antics to the Garter Inn in Windsor. Falstaff sends identical love letters to two married women, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page. When the two women compare notes, they begin to hatch a plot of revenge against the amorous and calculating Falstaff.

“It’s the only comedy that’s set in a specific town. Other comedies -- As You Like It, Twelfth Night -- are set in faraway places. When you look at it, it’s really about community,” said Neville-Andrews.

The community has welcomed outsiders before: a French doctor, a Welsh parson, and Mistress Quickly with her cockney accent.

The portrayal of this community is enhanced by set designer Gary Becker’s three-dimensional recreation of Windsor.

“It looks like the town of Windsor. In fact through the arch upstage you can actually see Windsor Castle,” Neville-Andrews said,

The set includes six Elizabethan houses on stage. And it’s all set for farce with four doors, a couples windows and the arch.

Some critics have complained that this Falstaff is not the same as the Falstaff in the Henry plays, where the heavy drinking knight was a sodden mentor to the future king. Neville-Andrews agrees that he doesn’t resemble that Falstaff, “but to a certain degree he does.”

“He’s still that chubby, ruffian, ragamuffin Falstaff and he’s still after money as he always is in the Henry plays. He and his cronies sort of ambush people to get their money, so he often seems to be in need of money and he needs money in this play as well,” Neville-Andrews said.

Queen Elizabeth asked for a Falstaff in love play, but Neville-Andrews said he doesn’t think she got what she asked for, as Falstaff is more in love with money and himself then the women he pursues.

The slender, young U-M junior Liam Loomer dons some extra padding to play the lead role of the fat old man with the witty quips and outrageous behavior.

“It’s really interesting, isn’t it, having to inhabit a physical space I’m not usually inhabiting,” said Loomer. “I also play with age. Falstaff is a little farther up in age than I am personally.”

Loomer said he is trying to find a way to show redeeming qualities in the old knight.

“It is about his love for himself and his love for money,” Loomer said. “But I’m trying to find a way to show his other connections to humanity and I think it’s easier in the Henry plays because of his connection with Hal as a father figure and not as easy to see in Merry Widows.”

Loomer said he got some experience playing a middle-aged character in U-M’s production of Ah Wilderness.

“He wasn’t as old as Falstaff; it’s not easy," Loomer said. "We were talking last night and he’s still a little too youthful. I am in my youth, fortunately. One thing about Falstaff, he’s sort of youthful in spirit and has a certain innocence."

Falstaff gets his comeuppance from the merry wives of Windsor, Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, who out-trick the master trickster and others as well. Christie Moyle plays Mistress Ford and Mallory Abnet plays Mistress Page.

“I like to think that we are the smartest people in the room at all times. Which is pretty much true,” said Moyle. “They plan everything, they know what’s going to happen, they see it through. What I’ve found interesting is that it doesn’t come from a place of malice but they genuinely enjoy doing it.”

Moyle and Abnet agree that their antics grow as much from boredom and a lack of attention as from any serious attempt to do harm to Falstaff.

“This isn’t the first time they’ve done something like this and it’s funny,” said Abnet. “You have Falstaff trying to woo us and we have an opportunity to pull a prank and it’s so enjoyable.”

Moyle said the males can be easily tricked because they don’t take women seriously.

“We trick our husbands, we trick everybody,” said Moyle.

Abnet said it was interesting that the women were not one-note.

“There is a line that the wives may be merry but honest, too, and the men all assume they can only be one thing and with all these tricks they are constantly proving they are so much more than that stigma,” Abnet said.

The actresses had to adjust to the biases of the times and also the physical discomforts.

“The corsets are hard,” said Abnet. “I didn’t think they were going to be hard. When I went for my first costume fitting I was so excited, the corset felt great. But there is a lot of running around and carrying the basket (with Falstaff inside) and throwing things so I didn’t realize it would be so restricting, and I have so much respect for the people who actually wore those things.”

Though the play is intended to get an audience laughing, Neville-Andrews said the theme of community may leave audiences thinking about some current events.

“When Falstaff comes to Windsor, he’s an outsider and has to be accepted and he has to be ‘tortured’ and go through some kind of trial before they welcome him in,” Neville-Andrews said. “By the end of the play, they all come together accepting Falstaff and his cronies who are invited back to a dinner and a big fire. If you think of Falstaff and his cronies as being like immigrants to a country that doesn’t belong to them, it might be a stretch, but there is a lesson in there about how we accept or don’t accept immigrants into our country. Do we accept their religion, do we accept their manner?”

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

"The Merry Wives of Windsor" will be presented at 7:30 pm on Dec. 7, 8 pm on Dec. 8 and 9, and 2 pm on Dec. 10 at the Power Center on the central campus of the University of Michigan. For tickets call the League Ticket Office at 734-764-2538 or go online to tickets.smtd.umich.edu.