The Merry Wives of Windsor Review - Grand Production, Great Venue

Shakespeare comedy is always a delight, but Shakespeare in nature is a special treat.  This weekend, I ventured to the Mayslake Peabody Estate in Oak Brook to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, performed by First Folio Theatre.  Despite the rain-shortened performance, the play and the surroundings were first rate.

 

After hearing about the Peabody Estate venue and the quality productions there from an acquaintance some time ago, I jumped at the chance to see my first Shakespeare play in many years.  The weather was very unstable, but the First Folio website indicated that the decision to cancel is not made until a half hour before the show, so my friend and I decided to first enjoy a delicious dinner at Redstone American Grill in Oak Brook, and then proceeded to the Estate in defiance of the weather.   Note that attendees can bring in food and drink starting one and a half hours before the start of the play.  When we arrived, veterans of this venue were feasting on great food and sipping chilled wines while they enjoyed the natural setting along with their friends. Though we had some rain before the play started, it magically let up just as the virtual curtain was to raise. 

Lydia Berger Gray (“Mistress Ford”), Brian McCartney (“Falstaff”) and Patrice Egleston (“Mistress Page”)

The stage is a good size and allows for many entrances and scene changes.  For this play, it is set up as town square with stairs on either side of the stage and a second floor balcony.  The audience seating flows on the grass and rises up a hill.  There are chairs available rent and some snacks can be purchased.  Otherwise, folks can bring their own chairs and tables.  Whatever is comfortable.  We walked around various locations facing the stage.  Most of the seating area provides an intimate theater experience.

 

And now for the play.  The Merry Wives of Windsor features John Falstaff (played by Brian McCarthy) who has a very high regard for himself, especially with the ladies.  Visiting Windsor and without funds, he targets two seasoned and married women, Mistress Page (played by Patrice Egleston) and Mistress Ford (played by Lydia Berger Gray), and attempts to woo them into his arms, beginning with writing them each a letter proclaiming his admiration.   Mistress Page and Mistress Ford come up with a scheme to thwart Falstaff and teach him a lesson, while Mister Ford (Joe Foust) catches wind of these goings-on (but not all the facts) and is suspicious of his wife. He snoops around, often in crazy disguise, to find the truth. 

 

Joe Foust (“Master Ford”) and Brian McCartney (“Falstaff”)

In the meantime, there are various suitors for Mister and Mistress Page’s daughter, Ann Page (Meg Warner), including Felton (Fred Geyer), with whom Ann is enamored, along with Slender (Michael Mulheard), who Mister Page (Victor Holstein) favors because of his wealth. Doctor Caius (Christian Gray), a French doctor who lives in Windsor, also wants Ann for his own.­  

Meg Warner (“Anne Page”) and Fred Geyer (“Fenton”)

Keeping much of the action going was Mistress Quickly (Caroline Kingsley), Falstaff’s page, Robin (Sophie Duntley), and various townspeople including Shallow (Bill Chamberlain) and Sir Hugh (Robert Allan Smith).  Rounding out the cast is Nico Fernandez as Simple, Mark Hespen as Pistol/Rugby, Steve Peebles as Host, Elliot Plowman as Bardolph, and Sara Costello and Alex Demetralis as Townspeople.

(L-R) Nico Fernandez (“Simple”), Christian Gray (“Dr. Caius”), Caroline Kingsley (“Mistress Quickly”), Sara Costello (Ensemble), and Alex Dematralis (Ensemble)

Much hilarity ensues, as with any Shakespearian farce.  The jokes are made in the dialogue, but much of the fun comes from how the actors portray and flesh out the poetic discourse.   Since most people do not read the play (read: me) before attending the performance, it is important that the actors bring the audience in right away so that they know what is going on, even if they are not completely getting every phrase’s exact meaning.  It took me a bit of time to get into the cadence and phrasing, especially with the large cast of characters and various subplots.  That said, I felt that I was a part of the townspeople because of the intimate setting, and the cast brought me into the revelry immediately. 

 

All of the performances were excellent, especially as this was the first non-preview performance.  I noted a couple times when there were flubs in dialogue that will only get more polished.  I loved that the full stage was used and that the action was fast-moving.  For a light comedy, the characters were fully-realized and interesting.  My favorites of the evening were Patrice Egleston’s use of expressions, Joe Faust as Mister Ford, and Caroline Kingsley’s funny turn as Mistress Quickly.  Brian McCarthy plays John Falstaff with an over-the-top glee that I loved and Christian Gray’s almost Inspector Clouseau-like turn as the French physical Caius had me giggling the next day.  Watch for his affectation each time he mentions his beloved (in his own mind) Ann Page.

(L-R) Robert Allan Smith (“Sir Hugh”), Victor Holstein (“Master Page”), Michael Mulhearn (“Slender”), Bill Chamberlain (“Shallow”), Steve Peebles (“Host”), Mark Hespen (“Pistol”/”Rugby”), Nico Fernandez (“Simple”), and Christian Gray (“Dr. Caius”)

Unfortunately, lightening and a tornado watch cut the production short.  It is a great testament to how much I enjoyed this show that I want to find time to go back and watch it again so that I can see the full production and the ending.  I figure John Falstaff finally gets his comeuppance, but I want to see these actors bring it on.

 

David Rice is Produce/Executive Director and Jeff Award nominee Nick Sandys directs.

Photos by First Folio Theatre

The Merry Wives of Windsor is playing at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st St. and Rt. 83, Oak Brook, IL through August 10.  Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 630.986.8067 or online at the First Folio website

http://www.firstfolio.org.

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