With the thermometer quickly dipping, and cool breezes winding their way throughout the Miami Valley, we come upon another autumn here in Dayton. And as the leaves start to change, the Shakespeare in South Park Company gears up for its fourth season of outdoor theater with a presentation of The Merry Wives of Windsor on September 16th through the 18th. This whimsical play is a return to comedy after last year’s excellent production of Romeo and Juliet flexed many of the player’s dramatic muscles. However it is unique in its own right among Shakespeare’s more lighthearted affairs, offering a far less formal structure than what most might expect out of an evening with the Bard of Avon.
A perhaps less known work, The Merry Wives of Windsor is a play written about the common people and for the common people. Of Shakespeare’s work, it is the only one that includes only middle and lower class individuals, with no king or queen, lord or lady taking up stage time, and the only play he ever wrote almost entirely in prose (or, in common language, as it were) instead of in poetic rhythms. Plus, as producer Galen Wilson is glib to point out, it’s a Shakespeare comedy that is actually funny. Though some may turn their noses up to this play as perhaps less sophisticated than Shakespeare’s more epic dramas, it has kept the masses rolling in the isles for well over 400 years, and promises to do so again this upcoming weekend in South Park.
The Merry Wives of Windsor is a story about a fat, middle aged, lecherous, dishonest, and boisterous knight named Sir John Falstaff, (rumored to be one of Queen Elizabeth’s favorite characters) who comes to town hard pressed for money. He devises a plan to serenade two local wives and then leech off of their husband’s money by writing them each a lover letter and confessing his desire for them. Realizing the knight has sent them both identical letters, the wives decide they will teach him a lesson for thinking they would so easily fall for his ploy. Through a series of increasingly embarrassing and entertaining situations, Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford exact their revenge on Falstaff for his lack of discretion, convincing him they are both madly in love with him before each situation inevitably goes “awry” for Falstaff, and he must flee, beaten, battered, and soaking wet.
Playing around the events of the gregarious knight, are two middle class families from Windsor; the Pages the Fords, and their friends. The Page’s daughter Anne is to be wed, but each parent has a different idea of who would best be her suitor. Her father prefers the bumbling but wealthy Abraham Slender, while her mother prefers the eccentric French physician Dr. Caius. However she loves neither of them, and searches for a way to be with the man that holds her heart. Mr. Ford is a jealous husband and suspects Falstaff of his intentions to woo his wife, and plots to catch him in the act. Sir Hugh, and old priest, is mistaken by Dr. Caius as a suitor for Anne, and he challenges the old man to a duel for it. Each situation comically plays itself off of one another, with suspicions, misunderstandings, double entendres, and a wide cast of different personalities until the very last scene.
First year director Susan Robert has decided to set the play in the style of a 50s sitcom. Her inspiration came after she had read through the script a few times and suddenly realized how much Mrs. Page and Mrs. Ford reminded her of Lucy and Ethel from I Love Lucy. She said the more she read it, and the more she thought of the story, and forgot about Shakespeare; the more she realized that it was a farce, a sitcom, and the type of thing you would watch on Friday night. “I wanted to make it silly,” she said, “I decided that I wanted to direct this, not for those that love and are in the ‘know’ of Shakespeare, but for those that really don’t care about Shakespeare, and hated reading it in English class. There are so many places to see serious dramatic performances of Shakespeare, but I want this to be a play for all audiences to enjoy.”
Robert, who has a robust background in theater, has directed at local schools for the last 14 years; first at Dayton Christian Middle School and then Brookeville High School. This is her first foray into directing for a local amateur company, but being familiar with the South Park troupe, (She played Lady Capulet in last year’s Romeo and Juliet) she thought it a great opportunity. “Everyone was just so nice to work with,” she said. “When I was approached about directing this year, they hadn’t yet picked a show, and I really had never directed Shakespeare before. But if there was any place to direct it for the first time, I knew this would be the place to do it. I knew how easy going it was [from last year].”
Her vision for Merry Wives covers all facets of suburban America during the 50s, and doesn’t miss a beat using “modernized” settings, props, and aesthetic to pull the audience into post-war America. From white picket fences and pulp comic books, to dashing fedoras, greasers, and rumors of UFO sightings, the audience will find themselves immediately familiar with the Pages and the Fords and the whimsical situations they get into.
The cast, like most years before it, is made up of roughly half South Park residents and half local thespians from around the Dayton area. Galen says he has tried to encourage as many residents as possible to be a part of the performance and make it a neighborhood activity. “This is a truly unique experience,” he commented, “it is good to bring people to South Park each year to see a neighborhood involved in a truly artistic expression.” However he enjoys the opportunity to work with other experienced actors, and welcomes anyone who wants to give their time to participate. After all, if Susan Robert had not auditioned last year, she probably would not be directing this year. Several residents from South Park are staring this year, including Galen Wilson as Mr. Page, Matt Fuqua as Dr. Caius, Jarrett Dicky as host of the Garter Inn, and John Fredland as one of Falstaff’s lackys, along with many others. Amazing talent from around the area also include J Gary Thompson as Sir Hugh, Jene and Judy Shaw as Mrs. Ford and Mistress Quickly, and Brendan Higgins as Bardolph.
Sir John Falstaff is being played by Mark Reuter, who has been acting since about the age of 10, when he would do passion plays for his church. Confessing himself to be painfully shy as a child, he recalls his first real venture into acting beyond the church was after his family moved to Washington Courthouse. “I still was not very comfortable, but the school was doing a musical and I decided to audition. Somehow I got the role of Captain Andy in Show Boat. It was kinda cool, I met a lot of people and they seemed to like what I did, and liked me for who I was.” This, at the age of 16, was when he first started to really open up, and continued several more performances throughout high school, all through college, and even during his time at West Point, and his military career. I asked him if he enjoyed playing Falstaff, and he laughed, “I love Falstaff,” he mused, “because he is so open about his dishonesty. It seems like a contradiction in terms, but he is just so open about the fact that he is a rogue and makes no bones about it. It’s fun to play a character that is… not necessarily good. He isn’t irredeemably evil, he does have a good side to him. He is a likable character, even if what he does is not very nice.”
For South Park, this not only is becoming a September experience, but a September tradition. As a neighborhood looking forward, with many hopeful opportunities on the horizon, the one thing most all residents agree upon, is how amazing the community itself is. It is the strong social bonds, the neighbor watching out for you, the friendly conversations when walking your dog, a story and a pint of beer at the local tavern, and the dozen or so of annual events that keep everyone connected, as well as introduce others to what South Park has to offer. Shakespeare in South Park has become not only a place for neighbors to bond and have fun, but also a way for them to give something cultural back to their neighborhood as well as to the Dayton community, by sharing a part of what they love about living there. Susan Robert admitted that while growing up she used to hate Shakespeare. It was not until she saw a performance by Ian McKellen (Gandalf, for those who may not know) in the 1980s that she grew fond of his plays. “It was good Shakespeare, and I understood what was going on for the first time, because he understood what was going on, and it was a huge change for me.” She smiled as she regaled about the performance, “That is the feeling I want to give to people who come see this show. I want them to have new perspective on Shakespeare, and leave, if only this one show, loving every minute of it.”
The Shakespeare in South Park Company will be performing September 16th through the 18th at the South Park Green at the corner of Hickory and James. Performances will start at 8:00pm, and admission is free. (but donations gladly welcomed.) Bring a blanket or lawn chair, and if weather is not permitting, performances will be held across the street at Hope Lutheran Church. For more information, visit www.historicsouthpark.org.